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Remembering the Past (for the Last Sunday of the Year)
I. How far ought we to Remember the Past, and how far ought we to Forget it? It may indeed be said that remembrance and forgetfulness are largely independent of our control. We are naturally endowed with strong or with weak memories, and ardent or placid temperaments, and our fortunes in life are only to a small extent within our own determination. Whether we shall pass through experiences which cut deeply into the mind, or whether our years shall flow on smoothly without anything happening in them which stirs the depths of our memory, is an alternative which is not within our choice. We enter into life as soldiers into a battle. What the day will bring to the several combatants none of them can tell till night falls on the stricken field. It is not less true that we have a very large power of directing our own thoughts, and can determine for ourselves whether we will cherish memories or banish them, brood over experiences of life, or lift our minds off them. We are concerned together with the treatment of memory which does lie within our own competence.
II. What, then, of Experiences? It is the grand principle to remember them by virtue of the lessons they taught us, or at least were able to teach us. 'Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life.' Two great facts stood out in that reminiscence: on the one hand the favour of Jehovah, on the other the folly of deserting His service. Everything depends on the purpose with which, and the spirit in which, we read that volume of personal experience which carries the record of what we have done, what we have not done, what we have been, what we have endured, and what we have suffered. The recollection of past achievement may stir in us nothing more than an indolent complacence, and we may live in our own view on the limitless credit of our own record, but none of us can thus live on credit Past achievement must stir us to the honourable resolve not to fall below a standard already reached.
III. In the same Way, there is a Right and a Wrong Way of Remembering our Faults. There is no moral advantage, there may be great moral danger, in continually remembering every particular sin, for such melancholy concentration of thought on failure induces the depression of spirit which takes the heart out of the spiritual conflict, and may even lead to a miserable acceptation of failure. Despondency and despair are close relatives, and when the one establishes itself in the mind, the other is on the way to follow. Such morbid dwelling upon sin is altogether contrary to the drift and spirit of Christ's religion. The forgiveness of sins is an article of the Christian Creed, and it stands in the forefront of the Apostolic teaching; but if sins, though forgiven, are still to hold dark dominion over the imagination, and destroy the peace of the mind, it is all one with their not being forgiven at all. The essence of forgiveness is no change in the disposition of the 'Father of lights, with Whom can be no variableness, neither shadow that is cast by turning,' but a change in the disposition of the sinner, which makes him renounce that which he indulged in. The moral invigoration which comes from the consciousness of being forgiven is weakened, if not altogether destroyed, when the dolorous remembrance of the failure is allowed to dominate the mind. We are to remember our faults for modesty and watchfulness. We are to learn, through them, what sins we ought most to guard against.
References. IV. 9. T. Arnold, Christian Life, p. 297. H. Woodcock, Sermon Outlines, p. 1. IV. 9, 10. J. Bowstead, Practical Sermons, vol. ii. p. 329. IV. 21, 22. R. Winterbotham, Sermons, p. 460. R. C. Trench, Sermons New and Old, p. 152.
The Judgment on Moses
We cannot consider the close of the great prophet's life without feeling that there are manifold lessons of instruction presented by it.
I. A Life may Appear in some Leading Point of it to have been a Failure, and may for all this have been a life most acceptable to God, and consummated with a death very precious in His sight.
The lives of few men are rounded and complete; there is something wanting in almost all, and this quite as much in the lives of God's saints as in the lives of other men.
God writes His sentence of vanity upon all things here.
II. We see here an Example of the Strictness with which God will call even His own to Account, and while His judgments are in all the world, will cause them to begin at His own house.
Moses' sin seems to us to have been a comparatively small one, a momentary outbreak of impatience or unbelief, and yet it entailed this penalty upon him, this baffling of the dearest hopes of his life.
III. We are Wont to Regard the Death of Moses as Something Unlike the deaths of other men, and so in a sense it was.
Yet look at it in another point of view, and what was it but the solitude of every deathbed? Je mourrai seul , said the great Pascal, and the words are true of every man.
We may live with others, but we must die by ourselves.
IV. Observe the Way in which God so often Overrules the Lives of the Saints of the Elder Covenant that by them He may, in type and shadow, set forth to us the eternal verities of the Gospel.
Think not of Moses that he can ever be more than a schoolmaster to Christ; that he can bring thee a foot further than to the borders of the land of thine inheritance.
Another must lead thee in, if ever that good land shall be thine. Jesus, our Joshua, our Saviour He must do this.
The Address of Moses to Israel
This address by Moses was given 'on this side Jordan in the wilderness' (v. 46). He felt it was exceedingly necessary to remind the people of some of the mighty things the Lord had done for them in the land of Ham and other parts since they left it; and the place where they had now pitched their tents for a little while was well fitted for this important end. More: privileged with a brief rest, they were in a meet state for calm and holy thought; and hence it was both wise and good of their great leader to bring the past before them, to excite their spirit of steadfastness and diligence in the future. His address was long and loving; but God and His Law are the leading topics of the whole.
I. The Spirituality of the Divine Nature. When God gave Israel His covenant, they heard His voice, but saw no form or figure of Him, so that they could have no ground for attempting to make any kind of image for the purpose of worshipping Him as exhibited by it. The truth is God is without body or parts; yet the Bible speaks of 'the face,' 'the eyes,' 'the arms,' 'the feet' of God; these, however, are metaphors only, and represent the truth relating to Him as seen from a human standpoint.
1. God is a Spirit. Hence no form of materialism can represent His nature. Matter cannot possibly convey any right idea of the Divine attributes, such as eternity, omnipresence, wisdom, purity, love, joy. It is obviously inferior to spirit, and inseparable from imperfection; it consists of separate and ceaselessly reacting atoms, and therefore cannot be one, nor immutable, nor infinite. To say, then, that matter is united with spirit in God as in man, is to degrade Him, and bind Him fast under the limitations of time and space. Yet some men have attempted the impossible (Isaiah 40:19-25 ).
2. Belief in the spirituality of God is indispensable to real worship. An idol god is thought to be satisfied with the bended knee and the uplifted hand; but God, being a Spirit, will accept of no worship but that of the mind and heart a pure, a holy, a spiritual worship. To offer merely the service of the body with a sapless spirit is a sacrilege of the same nature as that of the Israelites when they presented dead beasts to the Lord. 'God is a Spirit,' said Jesus to the woman of Samaria, 'and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth'. Such worship is enlightened; it perceives and rejoices in its object; it is the evidence of faith; and it is the fire kindled by the Holy Ghost on the altar of the heart.
II. The Perfection of the Divine Law Taken in connexion with the state of morals at the time of its publication, it is certainly Divine. No man or angel could have invented it: 'the finger of God' alone could write it.
1. Its perfection is apparent from its order. It consists of 'ten words,' and this number denotes the entire being; so that the law includes not only all that should be done, but all that should be left undone. Furthermore: God is first in it, as He should be; then His worship; then His name; then His day; and then those who stand next to Him. These things were engraven on the first table, according to Josephus and Philo; while the things on the second table relate to moralities of the highest and purest character.
2. Its perfection is apparent from its teaching. The Law not only gives instruction about outward conduct, but also about inward principle. No wrong is to be done to anyone either in thought, or word, or deed. And the Law recognizes love as the root of obedience, and the want of love as the cause of disobedience. How strongly the Great Teacher spoke on these points! (St. Matthew 22:35-40 ; Matthew 5:17-48 ). Love is verily the fulfilling of the Law.
3. Its perfection is apparent from its permanency. It was written on durable material, and was given to Israel for their observance alway. As the utterance of righteousness, Law is as unalterable as righteousness itself, and while everything human is perpetually changing, it remains as God's finger wrote it. The Gospel, therefore, has not set its obligations aside; nay, it has rather rendered them still more imperative. The Holy Spirit works and sanctifies in harmony with it. And the final judgment will be conducted by it as the standard of Divine approval or condemnation.
Encouragement to Return to God
I. The State Supposed. This is a state of deep apostasy and backsliding in a people who are professedly the people of God; and that aggravated by every circumstance increasing guilt, which can be found in the abundance of mercies which have formed the subjects of the rich experience of former years. On a survey of the particular case, you will find it to import
( a ) Apostasy and backsliding under circumstances of long experience of abundant mercies.
( b ) A separation from all former privileges.
( c ) A conformity to the world who know not God.
( d ) An increase of tribulation.
II. The Return Anticipated. The inspired writer anticipates a return unto God even from all the depths of apostasy which he had specified, when the Lord should visit His people with sanctified afflictions, and thus make manifest in them the spirit of adoption, while He caused them to turn to Him who had smitten them. Even previously to their fall, their recovery is predicted of sinners. This was particularly the case with Peter. The return of backsliding professors of godliness, if they be partakers of grace, is anticipated, expected, declared; the Lord has promised to heal all their backslidings, however great, or manifold, or aggravated they may be.
Even From Thence
The book of Deuteronomy was designed not purely for those to whom it was first addressed by Moses, but for all the Jews of all after times. In the subsequent history of the Jewish nation, this promise was not unfrequently the only light that shone upon them in the cheerless night of their calamity, and guided by it they returned to the God of their fathers and obtained deliverance. Particularly was this the case in the time of their captivity in Babylon. But this book was not written for Jews alone, and the promise before us is not to be restricted to the seed of Abraham according to the flesh. It contains within it the principles of God's merciful procedure with men yet, and assures them that they shall find God if they seek Him with all their hearts. I. Look at the Case Specified. It is not that of the sinner who is hearing of God and of His mercy for the first time. The first reference of this promise is to the Jews who had been brought up in the knowledge of the oracles of God, but who, in spite of manifold privileges, had become idolaters. Now where shall we find the parallels of these sinners under the New Testament dispensation? Not in the heathen abroad, not in the heathen at home; but this promise speaks to those whose guilt is of deeper dye than theirs, because they have been favoured with far higher privileges and have disregarded them. It appeals to those who have been taught to pray beside a parent's knee, who have been members of the Church, but who have lapsed into one or other of the many forms of idolatry that have been set up in the land as the worship of mammon, of fame, of power, of self, of pleasure yet even to them this promise comes, the assurance that if they return God will pardon.
II. The Blessing Promised 'Thou shalt find Him'. To many this promise would read very like a threatening, inasmuch as they know that they have sinned against God, and their guilty consciences associate Him with vengeance. But when it is said that the contrite souls shall find God, the meaning is not that He will reveal Himself to them in their punishment, but rather that He will make Himself known to them as He would have done if they had never wandered away from Him. They shall find the God whom they had lost, and they shall find Him toward them precisely as He was before they lost Him. Nor is this all: the contrite sinner shall find God restoring to him the title to the heavenly inheritance which he had forfeited.
III. The Qualification Annexed to the Promise. 'If thou seek Him with all thy heart and with all thy soul.' Now what is it to seek God? It cannot be a mere outward search. We need not look for Him in outward forms or ceremonies of worship; we need not seek Him in fasting, or in prayer or in almsgiving. We need not seek Him in mere external reformation of conduct. The search we make must be spiritual. Now God has told us that He is to be found in Jesus Christ, when we come to Jesus in simple confiding faith. Christ is the meeting-place of the sinner and his God. Jehovah has come in Christ seeking to reconcile us to Himself, and if we wish reconciliation we must go for it to God in Christ. There must be no half-heartedness in the search, no mental reservations; nothing but our unqualified submission of the soul to be saved on God's terms, and in God's way. This is seeking God with all the heart and soul.
IV. The Grounds Warranted that the Promise is to be Believed. 'Whereby shall I Know that I shall Inherit it?' Remember that this is God's promise. But we have something more than the Word of God to rest on here, for He has made this promise over sacrifice. Go to Calvary and behold the confirmation given there to this precious promise. Then God has performed this promise in numberless instances. Manasseh, the penitent thief, Saul of Tarsus, the Philippian Jailer, all found God by seeking Him with all their heart. God is faithful who hath promised, and His word is as stable as His throne.
W. M. Taylor, The Clerical Library, vol. II. p. 48.
References. IV. 29. Parker, Old Testament Outlines, p. 43. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxii. No. 1283.
Days That Are Past
I. Looking Back to the Sanctuary of the Past we gain strength for the future.
a. So it is that the past is our sanctuary;
b. the present our opportunity;
c. the future our hope.
II. Never Despair of the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. There may be a temptation to you, knowing as you do the attacks which are made upon the foundations of the faith, to think, as men will tell you, that Christianity is fairly played out, and that the twentieth century will see the end of it. Let us, living in the sanctuary of the past, see God's hand for the future, and know that whenever and wherever and however Christ is lifted up men will come to Him. Wherever he is lifted up He will draw all men unto Him.
III. Do not Despair of the Future. You who know that God has helped you ever since you drew breath, who see the golden thread of His love and providence all through your life till today, you can trust Him, you can die in His arms. It is true that you and I know nothing of the future. No man hath gone that way hitherto. It is unknown; but we may step out into the unknown bravely and boldly because we have seen God's goodness to us in the days that are past.
IV. If this is True of us Individually it is True of this Church. We do not know what God is going to do with this Church. We do not know. We abandon it into His hands, and say plainly that He Who has been so good to this place and has held it up through all its vicissitudes and brought it to this day, can take care of His own. We abandon the future into His hands.
The Religious Aspect of History
The word Deuteronomy means 'the second Law'. And much of the book which we are now reading is in effect a republication of the older law. But Deuteronomy is not a law book in the ordinary sense of the term. The voice that speaks to us in chapter after chapter is not so much the voice of a lawgiver formulating a code of rules as it is the voice of a prophet or preacher. The author of Deuteronomy was one who had thought deeply on that most serious of questions, What really makes for the permanent good of the people? And if there was one conviction that was dearer to him than others, it was that no people and no commonwealth can be in a state of well-being unless it is grounded on a great moral belief.
I. The groundwork of all obedience to human laws is knowledge of the fact, dwelt upon so emphatically all through this book, that God, in placing men under a Divine law and making them conscious of His invisible guidance, has bestowed upon them the greatest possible good? To know this, knew the prophet, was everything. This is why we are reminded all through this book of the uninterrupted continuity between what God is doing now and what He had done in the days of old.
II. We can never apprehend God's dealing with the nations and families in the present unless we study them in the light shed on them by the accumulated experience of the past. If we want to know man, and what causes make for his welfare or for his ruin, we must study man in history. We must ask of the ages that have gone before, and be guided by their verdict. Further, we must do this in a religious spirit, with our minds prepossessed with the belief in a righteous God, who has discovered Himself to man. In the Bible we have not the dry bones of history. We have its living principles illustrated and enforced. In God's moral government of the world there is no caprice, no room for accident.
III. The special lesson of the book of Deuteronomy is the religious use of history or, what is much the same thing, the paramount need of studying history in a religious spirit. Apart from the illuminating idea of an orderly movement in human affairs, and of God as presiding over that movement, the whole past becomes a bewildering dream. The Bible is a record of moral progress, a record of the gradual triumph of spiritual over material forces, of reason and conscience and the sense of moral obligation over mere animal instinct, and the desire of every man to be a law to himself. 'In the unreasoning movements of the world a wiser spirit is at work for us.' Thus history is the study which shows a man the whole, of which he is a part, and throws a clear light on the great process of which his own life is but a brief moment.
J. W. Shepard, Light and Life, p. 49.
References. IV. 32. H. J. Wilmot-Buxton, Sunday Lessons, vol. i. p. 382. IV 39. C Kingsley, Gospel of the Pentateuch, p. 222.
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Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 4". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26