And that which comes into your mind shall not be at all, that you say, We will be as the heathen, as the families of the countries…
There is, perhaps, no subject on which has been lavished so much of lofty thought and splendid expression as on the immortality of the soul, considered as an article of what is called natural theology. And yet we must feel that these endeavours to establish the immortality of the soul apart from the Bible are at best unsatisfactory: they rather leave its immortality as a splendid conjecture than place it as an established fact. The soul may be capable of an immortality, but God may not choose to allow it to be immortal. He formed it; He can annihilate it. Who can tell? how can reason inform us whether He will be pleased to extinguish the soul at or after death, or whether He will permit and appoint it to burn forever as a spark from Himself? It is here that we are in darkness without the Bible; it is here that natural theology must give place to revealed. Reason shows us that the soul may live forever; Scripture alone certifies us that the soul shall live forever, even as Scripture alone instructs us how the soul may be happy forever. For a moment, and as introductory to our text, we would comment on one species of argument which has been freely adduced in support of the immortality of the soul, but which, however it may dazzle the imagination, possesses, we suspect, but little real strength. It is often confidently said that the soul shrinks from annihilation as from that which it instinctively abhors — that it loudly lifts up its voice against the notion of perishing with the body, and, by the earnestness with which it craves immortality, attests in a measure that it is not to die. We altogether question this. So far from a natural shrinking from annihilation, we believe that as to the great mass of men we might rather assert the natural wish for annihilation. I do not know why all men should shrink from the supposition of the soul's perishing with the body; I see the strongest reasons why they should incline to the supposition, and wish even if they cannot prove it to be true. There are crowds of genuine Christians who virtually go far beyond the Israelites, whose wicked wish or purpose is recorded in our text. The Israelites longed to be "as the heathen, as the families of the countries, to serve wood and stone." The people, you see, had so sinned against God, and they held His service in such utter loathing, that they would have been glad to forget it altogether, and to diminish their responsibleness by lapsing into the ignorance of actual idolaters. But this it is which God assures them can never be. Having known the true God, it was impossible they could be dealt with as though they had never known any but the false god. Wilful ignorance can never put a man in the same position as unavoidable ignorance; and if you attend to the statements of Scripture you will see that we are to be reckoned with hereafter for every talent committed to our care. Whether we have misused it, or whether we have let it go idle, the mere fact that we had it is to constitute an important item in our future account. Born in a Christian country, baptized with Christian baptism, placed under a Christian ministry, we are all immeasurably removed from unavoidable ignorance. Take a number of colonists, — transfer them to some distant land, where there are no temples but those of false gods: the colony thus transplanted may learn the ways of the heathen, adopt their superstitions, and bow at their altars; but think ye that therefore the birth and the baptism and the Christian institutions retain no effect? The heathen may teach the colonists their vices, and even convert them to their superstitions, and men who left their own country with some sense of awe of the God of their fathers may utterly forget Him in the strange land to which they have wandered for a home, in place of endeavouring to make Him known to their new and ignorant associates; they may dishonour His name by even exceeding the heathen in licentiousness, teaching and being taught new forms and measures of iniquity; but this is the sum of the change which can be wrought; there is no possibility of the colony getting rid of that vast and portentous accountableness which has been fastened on itself by its adhesion to Christian privileges and Christian rites. Will you say there is nothing in this supposed case of a colony to touch your own case? You are never likely to desire or design, you may tell me, what has been imagined. Not so; for we would now observe that it is no uncommon hope, that of wilful ignorance passing for unavoidable ignorance, and no uncommon endeavour that of occupying the position of those who have fewer moral advantages than ourselves. Take a very common instance. How many keep away from the sacrament of the Lord's supper because secretly conscious that the receiving it pledges them to increased holiness of life, and certainly hoping that their sins will be more excusable whilst they do not partake of so solemn an ordinance! They neglect the holy communion, partly at least under the notion that the sins which they love and do not wish to abandon are less criminal and less dangerous in non-communicants than in those who obey Christ's dying command — "This do in remembrance of Me." But what is this, if not almost literally what was meditated by the Israelites in our text? Here is the hope, on the part of those who know of the sacrament, of being dealt with as those who never heard of the sacrament. Preposterous hope! It is the Israelite thinking that he may be as the heathen. He dies innocently who dies in actual want; he dies by suicide who starves himself with a meal within reach. "That which cometh into your mind shall not be at all, that ye say, We will be as the heathen." There is, we believe, a yet more common endeavour to the getting rid of the responsibility which results from the possession of opportunities and advantages. Think ye not that many a man avoids reading the Bible, and putting himself in the way of knowing the exact truth in regard of his spiritual condition, under the impression, perhaps hardly acknowledged even to himself, that he is safer in his ignorance — that he shall escape with a lighter judgment if he remain uninformed as to his precise danger and duty? What gains he, what can he gain, by his wilful, his premeditated ignorance? Does he think — can he be so infatuated as to think — that truth, to which he shuts his eyes, is the same thing, the same in its accusing power, the same in its condemning power, as truth which has never been revealed? Does he think, can he think, that by living in a darkened room — a room which he has shut up and darkened of his own will and by his own act — he will have no more to answer for than those to whom God has never vouchsafed the beauty and the magnificence of the sunshine? Vain thoughts! vain thoughts! Know all of you, that live you may as those who shall perish at death, but judged you must be as those who were told. their. immortality. Live you may as pagans — judged you must be as Christians. Never can you pass the broad line of separation between the wilful and the unavoidable. Since, then, we must be judged as Christians, shall we not strive that we may be accepted as Christians? If an unimproved privilege must be an everlasting burden, here is fresh motive to the endeavouring so to use it that it may prove an everlasting blessing.
(H. Melvill, B. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And that which cometh into your mind shall not be at all, that ye say, We will be as the heathen, as the families of the countries, to serve wood and stone.