Unstable as water, you shall not excel; because you went up to your father's bed; then defiled you it: he went up to my couch.
Some years ago, there was an eldest boy in one of our religious schools — it was a school at Marlborough — and he was a Christian boy, and the younger boys loved him, and they said that he did more good than the master; he was such a Christian boy. I will not tell you his name, though I know it — he was always first in every good thing — first in loving and fearing God; and he did such good in Marlborough, that many boys said they owed a great deal indeed to that boy. He was the eldest, Reuben is the eldest, and therefore you will see his father calls him, in the verse before the text, "the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power," and he calls him too "unstable as water." Reuben had one great fault, and that spoiled him. Do you know what it was? He was unstable." What does that mean? "Unstable." I will tell you what that word means exactly; it means that his character did not stand; he was always changing; he was not steady to one thing: he was not a firm character: and because he was not a firm or steady character, it spoiled all. Now it says here, you see, that an "unstable man" is like "water." Shall we think how he can be like "water"? There are several sorts of water — what water shall we think of? There is the sea, that is all water, and you know the sea is very restless — it does not keep still — it is not the same one day as it is another day — it occasionally looks a different colour, it sometimes looks green, sometimes blue, sometimes a kind of purple, sometimes whitey-brown; and then it is always tossing about. You remember it says in Isaiah 57:20, "The wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt." I do not think that this is what the word means. Do you know how "water" is made? Water is made up of numbers and numbers of little round things called "globules," little spheres; and they touch one another only at points, just like marbles in a bag; they cannot stick to one another. To speak properly, there is not much attraction or cohesion, because they are little round things; but they may be easily separated. Now a piece of wood is altogether different, because it is close, it is not composed of little round things. We can put our hands into a basin of water and move it about, but we cannot put our hands into a piece of wood, it is too firm; but as water sticks so little together, you can easily move it. If you put some water in a basin on a table, and you walk across the room, the water will move by the shaking; and even if you breathe upon it, the breath will cause it to move. For this reason it is so "unstable." And you cannot, you know, make water stand up by itself. Supposing you get some water, and try to make a pillar of the water, you cannot do so. If you try to make water stand up by itself, it will not stand up. No, not even the most wonderful man that ever lived in the world, could make water stand up like a pillar. So a man that is "unstable" cannot stand; he is always moving — that is what it means. Think of the sea — think of the water in the basin — how it moves by a little touch. You may try but I am sure you cannot make water stand up. It is said of some people they are just like "water," they cannot stand; they are always moving, always changing — "Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel." Will you look at Hosea 6:4 — "O Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee? O Judah what shall I do unto thee? For your goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the early dew it goeth away." Are you like that? Does all your religion soon pass away, soon go? It is very often the case with little children. I will tell you how it is. You kneel down to say your prayers, and before you have gone through them your thoughts travel I don't know where; your thoughts all wander. Then you go to other things. You go to your studies; you may be very diligent; you commence well; you open your books and begin to study, but before you get a very little way you have looked at something which sends your thoughts all wandering about; you do not keep steady; you are "unstable." Then I will tell you another thing I think about some of you; that yon determine that you will be good, and love God, and do what is right; and yet, after perhaps a very little time, you break your resolution. You are " unstable." I will tell you a sad story. An old man was lying on a sick and dying bed, and he sent for all his children. When they gathered round him he said something like this: " My dear children, never grieve the Holy Spirit. Take warning by me. When I was a little boy I had often religious instructions, but I did not take much account of them till I was about sixteen. Then I had very strong religious feelings — I had great convictions of sin, and I remember what I did. I remember saying to myself, 'I must become a Christian, I must be religious, but I am very young now; there are a great many pleasures, and I will take my pleasure now, but will become religious soon.' And so I put it away, and went on till I was twenty-five — just after I was married — and then came another, when it seemed as if the Holy Spirit was striving with me again, for He was very patient with me, and I had very strong religious feelings, and something seemed to whisper to me 'Now, now.' I remember what I did then. I said, ' Now I am married, and I must attend to my wife, to my home, and my children; I cannot forget them just now.' And so it went on till I was forty. And when I was forty, I remember how the Spirit worked in my heart again, and urged me very strongly to decide for God. And again I said, 'I am a man of business, I can't do it while I have to keep up my business; when I give up my business, then I will give my whole heart to God.' And so it went on for another ten years, till I was fifty, and then it once more came to me and said, 'Now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation.' I put it away more easily than I did before; I thought that soon I should be a very old man, and then I should be infirm and be obliged to stop in-doors, and then it would be the time to be religious. But now I lie upon my sick-bed, and now it does not seem as if the Holy Spirit is with me; He does not seem to draw me. I listen, I listen; but I quenched the Spirit — I stifled conviction. I have gone through life without Him, and now He seems gone! 'Quench not the Spirit.'" And he died. I am not going to say, my dear children, whether that man was saved or not — God only knows — he may be; Jesus may have saved him. I know he was very unhappy indeed, to look back and think when he was dying that, he had been so "unstable." Now I will tell you one more thing in which I think you are like the "water." Don't you find that you are very different, when you are with different sorts of people? When you are with good people, you feel hew pleasant it is to be good! Ah, when you go with another sort of people — wicked people, then you are like the wicked people, and you act like them, and feel like them! You are always like the people you are with — changing your character, and striving to please everybody. There is a very awful instance in the Bible of a man who did that. Do you know who it is? Pontius Pilate — he was like the people he was with. When he was with Christ, he was a Christian; when he was with a Jew, he was like a Jew; and when he was with a Roman, he was always like a Roman; and just see what he did. He at last became so wicked that he crucified Christ! He was a weak character. "Unstable as water thou shalt not excel." Now I think you see how you are like "water." Do you remember whether it is so? I think it is. Sometimes you have very good feelings, and they pass away like "the dew" in the morning. I think you make good resolutions and break them again. I think you act according to the people you are with. And in all these things you are "unstable" like the "water." Now God has said, my dear children, that if you are "unstable" like the "water," you "shall not excel." If you are restless and changeable — if you are easily moved, like the "water" in the basin, by the breath of what anybody says, or the footsteps of a companion — if you cannot stand up you will never be great. Now I come to the all-important thing. Are you very weak, my dear children? Which is weaker — your bodies or your souls? You have not very strong bodies, but your souls are weaker than your bodies, A good old divine, one of the old Puritans, who lived a long time ago in England, says that he always had a broken wine glass, without the bottom, and around the wine glass he used to have the text written — "Hold Thou me up, and I shall be safe." His soul was like the wine glass. To remind him how weak he was, he had this wine glass before him with the text written around it — "Hold Thou me up, and I shall be safe." How can we become more firm and strong that we may "excel" — that we may all be useful Christians? That is what I want you to think about. One thing is (and I am going to tell you four things), to keep your promise, to be consistent and decided. That is one thing. Let us look at something which does not change. It helps us very much if we want to do anything steadily, to look steadily at steady things. For instance, when a man is steering a ship, he must not look at the waves, he must look at the compass, or at some star; or when a man is ploughing a furrow, he must not look close to him, but at some object at the end of the field, and then the furrow would be straight; and if you want to walk along a plank, you must not look on the plank, you must look at the end. Do that with your soul. Think how unchangeable Jesus Christ has been to you ever since you were born. This is one thing; now I come to the second. You will find, if you live long enough and think about it, that you cannot stand, and your soul cannot stand by itself. As soon as you get a vine in your garden, and you wish to make that vine a splendid tree, you bind it around something — all the little creepers must be entwined about something for that purpose, else it will not become beautiful; and, oh I my dear children, we are all of us creepers, we cannot live and grow unless we creep. Well, let us look at Psalm 61:2 — "Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I." What a pretty prayer! "Oh! I am a poor, weak little girl (says one), I cannot keep my good resolutions; oh! 'lead me to the Rock that is higher than I,' — that is, Jesus Christ: He is the Rock, and He will hold me up. And I shall twine around Christ, and shall get strong, because He is strong." I will tell you about a man who lived some time ago. When he was a boy, he was very passionate, and often became very angry. This little boy had a very good mother — a kind, pious mother; and this mother used to read the Bible with him every morning, and she did what a great many good mothers do, when she had read a passage she used to say to the boy, "Let us take a verse and think of it during the day — have it for our motto for the day." And one morning, when this little boy had been in a great passion, and had been a very naughty boy indeed, when he went to read to his mother, she chose the sixty-first Psalm, and they read it together, and she said, "Now, my dear boy, let us choose out of this Psalm a verse that shall be for our text for the day; and I think the best will be, 'Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I.'" And then she explained to him that Jesus Christ was "the Rock," and that he could not conquer his temper if he did not go to Jesus Christ for help, and if he loved Jesus Christ he would be able to conquer himself; and he said, "I know I shall, I am sure I shall, I will conquer myself; I feel so different, that I am sure I shall never be angry again." But, before the breakfast was over, the little boy was in a passion; yet when he was in that passion, his text came to his mind, "O lead me to the Rock that is higher than I": and he was conquered much sooner than was generally the case, because he offered up the prayer," O lead me to the Rock that is higher than I; He will conquer me." That boy lived on, and had a great many troubles in life. He was a young man who was very unkindly treated. I will not tell you who it was; but he said he found his text like a talisman — that is, a sort of charm; and whenever he was getting angry, he thought of these words, "Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I; and I shall conquer." And when that man came to lie upon his dying bed, a minister went to see him, and he said, "What shall I read?" And he said, "Oh, read the sixty-first Psalm — I owe everything to that — read it; oh, read it on!" and when the minister came to the end of the second verse — "Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I," — the sick man cried out, "Stop, stop; I can't tell you what I owe to my mother who pointed out to me that verse when I was a little boy! She taught me to say, 'Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I'; and so I was conquered." Now I must go on to my third point. If you are a weak character, and know it, you must not expose yourself to temptation. Supposing a doctor came and said to you, "Now you are a person who will very easily take a fever" — would not you take great care not to go near a place where you knew there was a fever? Would not you be very careful? Supposing the cholera was very bad about, and you were told you must be particularly careful what you ate or drank, for you would easily take the cholera. Would not you be careful about your diet? I tell you, as the physician of your soul, that you are a character that will easily catch sin. Then, for God's sake, don't go near it — to danger; don't go in temptation's way, lest you catch that most contagious disease — sin. Once more. Take good care that you have some good foundation, as you are so "unstable." We may be easily led — take care to have a good foundation. Some time ago a ship was wrecked on the coast. She was riding at anchor, but she slipped her anchor, and so, drifting, ran on shore. The sea was running very high; only a few were saved on that dreadful night; they were saved by swimming on shore, or by getting on planks. There was one man on board ship, who was as calm as possible on that terrific night. One of the sailors went to him and said, "Do you not know the danger? Don't you know we have lost our anchor, and are drifting on to the shore? Our destruction is certain." "Oh, I know, I know," he replied, "I have an anchor for the soul, a castle built upon a rock, sure and steadfast." And it was that which gave him such stability; because he had the anchor of the soul, he could do anything.
(J. Vaughan, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father's bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch.