Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved.…
The first good use of some texts is, to endeavour to prevent a bad one.
I. THE TEXT HAS OFTEN BEEN CITED FOR THE PURPOSE OF DEPRECIATING GENUINE ZEAL. Think on how many excellent designs it has been quoted against, and what would have become of home and foreign missionary enterprise had certain interpretations ruled! With men of indifferent, frozen temperament, the text has been a great favourite. So it has with timid, cowardly men, with the parsimonious, with idolaters of custom, and of everything established, and with that class which is content with mere speculation, regarding scarcely anything as worth attempting. With most of these, however, it is not zeal itself that is contemned, for "none would be more zealous than they — on a proper occasion." But when can that occasion come? Is it to be expressly brought on by Providence to enable them to show this virtue? Or is it to be when all things are mended, so that there shall be less to be done? But who, then, is to do all this in the meantime?
II. BUT STILL THERE IS IN THE WORLD AN ILL-JUDGING AND UNWARRANTABLE ZEAL.
1. Indeed, if we take it in its general sense, persevering ardour in prosecution of a purpose, it has been, in its depraved operation, the animating demon of every active evil. And, many that are comparatively harmless, let but this fire be kindled by a torch from hell applied to the brimstone that lies cold and quiet in their nature — and we should see.
2. But not to dwell on these terrible operations of zeal, we see its effect in numberless things of a more diminutive order, e.g., long and earnest exertions for excellence in some most trifling attainment; unremitting efforts in prosecution of inquiry into something not worth any cost to know; an intense devotion to add particle after particle to the little sum of worldly possession; the earnest vying in little points of appearance, consequence, precedence. Zeal is an element that will combine with any active principle in man; it is like fire, that will smoulder in garbage, and will lighten in the heavens.
III. ZEAL thus has its operation in all the active interests of men. But it is MOST USUALLY SPOKEN OF AS BELONGING TO RELIGION, and it is in this relation that we have here to consider it. "Zeal of God."
1. And who can help wishing that there were a thousand times more zeal directed this way? Of the whole measure that there is being constantly expended what proportion might well be spared, nay, destroyed, to advantage? Nine parts in ten? Perhaps more. Now think, if one or more of these portions misapplied could be devoted to God! Look at an ambitious man's zeal; an avaricious man's zeal; an indefatigable intellectual trifler's zeal! nine parts in ten misapplied; wasted at the best; a large portion worse than wasted! So it is going — while there is here what deserves it all — like clouds, heavy with rain, passing away from gardens and fields languishing under drought, to be discharged on mere deserts or marshes or sea. Or suppose a great city on fire in a severe winter; what a blessing so much fire would be if distributed into all the abodes of shivering poverty and sickness!
2. After such a view of the immense proportion of zeal altogether lost to God, we are reluctant to consider that a share even of the zeal that is directed to God may be "not according to knowledge." The necessity of knowledge to religious zeal is fearfully illustrated by(1) The mighty empires of superstition — Pagan, Mohammedan, Popish. It is true that many go no further than a stupid, slavish acquiescence; and that some are sceptics, only preserving appearances; but countless legions of them are burning with fanatic zeal — they know no better.
(2) The direful history of persecution. For, though some persecutors have only been politic, infernal hypocrites, yet the mighty host of them have really believed that they did God service.
(3) The wild novelties of fanaticism that have occasionally sprung up in the Christian community. In view of all this the good man has still to exclaim, "Oh for knowledge! for knowledge!"
IV. Turn now to THE ORDINARY FORMS IN WHICH RELIGIOUS ZEAL IS DEVOID OF KNOWLEDGE.
1. That which the apostle here speaks of, namely, men's zealously maintaining the sufficiency of a righteousness of their own, which God will not accept (ver. 3). Fatal ignorance in zeal! Knowledge here would reveal to them the holiness, justice, and law of God; would reveal themselves to them; and then their zeal would go another way, as when a convinced pagan perceives his god to be a worthless idol.
2. Zeal when accompanied by no desire of knowledge, rather aversion to it. Horror of free reasoning. A notion that all religious speculation is necessarily destructive to religious feeling, insomuch that the very reasons for being zealous are not to be clearly defined. Whatever the strong impulse may be, it plainly is not "zeal according to knowledge" when a man does not know why he is zealous.
3. A capricious and fluctuating zeal, and what we have just described is likely to be such. It shall blaze at one time and seem sunk under the ashes at another, varying with the changeable recoil of the man's mind. It is true that there will be in most minds considerable variations of feeling, of which zeal will in a measure partake. But a most important counteracting and sustaining principle is a clear, decided knowledge of the object and reasons of the zeal.
4. The zeal which consists in a considerable degree of mere temper, where a man's irritability or impetuousness and restlessness goes into the zeal for the object, and is mistaken by him as all pure zeal respecting the object itself. So that, in this one point especially, it is not "according to knowledge," for he knows not himself. "Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are off"
5. That zeal which is less concerned about the object itself than about the man himself. Jehu's zeal was, in mere point of fact, for the "Lord of hosts," but he did not really care much for that sacred cause itself. It was a fine thing that he should be exhibited as a conspicuous vindicator in the ranks of the Lord's "hosts."
6. A great zeal for comparatively little things in religion. Now knowledge gives the scale of the greater and the less. There are minor points of doctrine, form, and observance. These have often been magnified and enforced as if they were the very life and essence of Christianity.
7. Zeal for great things for little reasons. Thus Christianity has been zealously advocated just on the ground that it is conducive to the temporal well-being of a state! By innumerable persons some one model of Christian faith is zealously maintained, chiefly because it has been maintained by their ancestors. We have known persons zealously holding some important doctrine because it has happened to coincide with some particular fancy or impression of the person's mind; not from a consideration of its own great evidences. This is a gross desertion of the rule — that zeal should be "according to knowledge."
8. A zeal for single points in religion, especially the most controverted ones, as if the whole importance of religion converged to these, as we see in the most strenuous Calvinists and Arminians. Such zeal miserably impoverishes the interest for religion as a grand comprehensive whole, and for all the parts of it but the one. And thus the very "knowledge" itself will dwindle from taking account of the whole.
9. The excessive zeal for a religious sect or party, a mere worldly spirit of competition and jealousy. This indeed is " according to knowledge," the "wisdom" that James describes as coming from below.
10. The zeal which is expended in some one way of attempting to serve religion when it might be applied to better purpose in another. Thus able men have exhausted their talents and labours upon comparative trifles when, with the same exertion, they might have served the greatest interests. And ordinary Christians have been invincibly set on serving God in ways foreign to their attainments and situations when there were plainly before them other ways of certain usefulness.
11. That zeal which, in attempting to do good, takes no account of the fitness of season and occasion. Knowledge would show the adaptation of means to ends — the laws and working of human minds — the favourable conjuncture. Knowledge, too, would point to consequences. And zeal should not fancy itself the more noble and heroic for setting all consequences at defiance.
12. That zeal which seems willing to let its activity in public plans and exertions to serve religion be a substitute for personal religion. In such zeal where is the man's knowledge if it does not strike him with irresistible conviction how indispensable is religion to his own self?
Parallel VersesKJV: Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved.