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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Ezekiel 14". The Biblical Illustrator. https://studylight.org/
commentaries/ eng/ tbi/ ezekiel-14.html. 1905-1909. New York.
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Ezekiel 14". The Biblical Illustrator. https://studylight.org/
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These men have set up their idols in their heart.
The Lord is now going to search the heart, to turn out the corners of the inmost recesses of the mind, the idol and favourite sin. He will proceed to do a spiritual work; He will lay aside His hammer with which He has broken the wall, and no more will He tear and rend the garments which cover falsehood: He will enter the heart, He will name the idols one by one which occupy that secret sanctuary; He will name them, He will bring them forth to judgment, and He will conduct that most penetrating of all criticism, the judgment of the thought and motive and purpose of man. “Then came certain of the elders of Israel unto me,”--came to be looked through, weighed, measured, and adjudged. No office can save men from Divine criticism. How comforting is this thought, though terrible in some aspects! It were well that our judges should be judged, else who can tell to what extremes of folly they might go, hounded on by ambition, or stung to further issues by envy and malice? The higher the office, the greater the responsibility; the larger the privileges, the greater the sin if they are outraged; the more brilliant the genius, the more infamous the mischief if that genius be perverted. The able man, the man of faculty and education, can do more sin in one moment than a poor uneducated soul can do in a lifetime. Elevation aggravates sin. The place of the disease indicates its fatal character--“in their heart.” This is heart disease. Men almost whisper when they indicate that some friend is suffering from disease of the heart; there is hopelessness in the tone: great allowance should be made, they say, for a man who is suffering from heart disease; be must not be startled, or excited, or suddenly pounced upon; his wishes must be gratified, they must as far as possible even be anticipated; and any little impatience he may show must be looked at charitably. The talk is humane, the considerateness is full of affection, the conditions imposed are suggested by reason. Is there not a higher disease of the heart? What is the meaning of this disease of the heart, this idolatry in the inmost soul? When a moral disease is of the heart it means that the disease is liked, enjoyed; it is wine drunk behind the door, it is a feast of fat things eaten in secrecy; every mouthful so sweet, so good, so rich. When a disease is of the heart in a moral and spiritual sense it means that it is consented to; it is voluntary, it is personal, it is desired; there would be a sense of loss without it. Disease of this kind, too, is most difficult of eradication. It is not in the skin, or it might be cut out; it is not in the limb, or it might be amputated, and the knife might anticipate mortification: the evil is in the heart; no knife can touch it, no persuasion can get at it; nothing can be done with it but one thing--only a miracle of the Holy Ghost can overcome that difficulty and turn that disease into health. “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.” Are we chargeable with heart idolatry? We have no idols of a visible kind, it may be, yet we may be the veriest pagans in our hearts. We say, How distressing that poor human nature should fall down before stock and stone and worship it! and we, inflated pagans, worship a golden calf, a tinsel crown, a sounding name, a crafty policy. Are we chargeable with heart idolatry? Certainly we are. No man can escape this accusation. It is subtle, far reaching, all but ineradicable. If we do not face such difficulties our piety is a stucco that will peel off in the wet weather, and leave the ghastly moral ugliness exposed to public scorn. Doubt may be an idol used to diminish responsibility. Others, again, may have in the heart an idol called Ignorance, kept there for the purpose of diminishing service: we will not go into the dark places of the city, then we need not attend to the cries which are said to be arising there from overborne and hopeless humanity; we will keep on the broad thoroughfare, where the gaslight is plentiful; we shall see the surface and outer shape of things, and then retire to rest, saying that, say what fanatics may, there is really a good deal of solid happiness in the city. Have we not an idol in the heart we call Orthodoxy, which We keep there in order to enlarge moral licence? Is there not an intellectual orthodoxy and a spiritual heterodoxy often united in the same man? “Therefore say unto the house of Israel, Thus Saith the Lord God: Repent.” When did the Lord ever conclude a discourse without some evangelical tone in it? The Bible is terrific in denunciation, awful beyond all other books in its denunciation of sin and its threatening of perdition; yet through it, and through it again, and ruling it, is a spirit of clemency and pity and mercy and hope, yea, across hell’s burning mouth there lies the shadow of the Cross. (J. Parker, D. D.)
The father of modern philosophy and science has shown us that there are in the mind of man, as man, natural idols which act as impediments to his acquisition of knowledge and his search after truth. Till these idols are overthrown and broken in pieces and taken away it is simply useless for man to pursue knowledge. His efforts will be neutralised and their results vitiated. Now, if this is so in the matter of human science, it is none the less worthy of our regard in the matter of Divine truth and of the knowledge of God. We cannot know God, whom to know is eternal life, as long as these natural obstacles are not taken out of the way. We cannot serve Him acceptably as long as, instead of being dethroned, they are still set up in our hearts. What, then, is the practical bearing of this truth? First, there must be a single eye to the knowledge of God. If we have not determined with ourselves that God, and the knowledge of God, and the fear of God, is more to be desired, and if we personally do not desire it more than wealth, or ease, or success, or the applause of men, or position in life, or influence, or comfort, or anything else, then we may be never so punctual in our religious duties, never so zealous for the outward honour of God, never so eager for the triumph of particular principles, or a particular party, or a particular cause, but for all that there is still enshrined in some inner recess, some secret corner of our hearts, an idol which disputes with the Most High God the possession and sovereignty of them. Again, not only must there be a clear and undimmed perception of God as the one sole object of our services, but there must also be a readiness to sacrifice anything in order to know and to serve Him. How many there are in the present day, not, thank God, who cannot afford to be religious--for that brings with it no slur in our times, but rather the reverse--but how many there are who dare not follow Truth whithersoever she may lead, who cannot afford to obey their own convictions, and therefore stifle them with the excuses of propriety or usage or convenience. This is a hard thing, and it is so because the claims of truth and the idol in the heart cannot both be acknowledged. And there is no condition of life where this does not apply. It is hard for the man of science, whose name has been identified with certain theories and principles, to sacrifice his name and fair renown to the growing conviction of counter theories and principles which will make the past a blank, or show it to have been a mistake. It is hard for the religious partisan, whose life has been east in a particular mould, and whose sympathies are linked to one form of opinion and practice, to yield to the force of truth when it comes with the authority of conviction to the mind and compels the acknowledgment of previous error and misunderstanding. But more than this, it is hard not to approach the consideration of religious truth with a distinct bias; but it is certain that the existence of any such bias must damage our appreciation of the truth. Unless we can see all round a thing, we can have no true apprehension of the thing. We may view it partially, but shall have no conception of it as a whole. The idol in possession of the mind will prevent the entrance of the true idea. But if this is true, and in proportion as it is, there are certain general principles to which it behoves us all to give heed when we come to the worship of God. First of all, we must empty ourselves of ourselves. We must come as though our present knowledge of God were as nothing, and as if God were still to be known and learnt. The whole of what we have must be sacrificed for the sake of what we are to have and to gain. As long as sin, in one of its innumerable forms, lurks in the heart or on the conscience, the service of God will be a vain thing, because the pursuit of truth is a lie. It is that practised dishonesty, it is that cherished lust, it is that pampered self-love, it is that incurable indolence, it is that willingly defiled imagination, it is that malice and envy which vitiates all your worship and renders all your religion a lie. There is One who searches the heart, and who cleanses it because He searches it. There is One whose blood cleanses us from all sin, if we are willing to walk in the light, as He is in the light. It is in direct personal communion with this heart-searcher, with this sin-bearer, but only so, that we become sinless. But if anything is suffered to interfere with that direct personal intercourse and communion, no matter what it is, even though it should be some sacred word or ordinance of His own, that is an idol which interferes with our worship and service of Him, and therefore an idol which must be broken down. (S. Leathes, D. D.)
Idolaters inquiring of God
I. What is meant by the setting up of idols?
1. It is oppressive to men in their natural state to think of the spiritual, omnipresent, heart-searching God. Accordingly they have brought down their conception of God to something that can be apprehended by sense. They have thus tried to satisfy the religious instinct within them, while at the same time pleasing themselves. It is much easier to have an object of worship that we can see, or touch, or taste. An idol, too, is not so exacting as the incorruptible and sin-hating God. Being material, it cannot require heart worship.
2. We are in no danger of worshipping idols of wood and stone. But the tendency of human nature is always the same, and where there is not renewing grace there is something creaturely that is idolised--it may be some place of power, or wealth, or some sensual pleasure, or child, or creation of the mind.
(1) There is this idolatry when we are intent upon a sin or a course of sinning.
(2) There is this idolatry when we set up particular ideas in our heart from which we do not mean to turn.
II. The inquiring. These Israelites did not mean by setting up their idols utterly to east off Jehovah. They meant still to connect Him with their past history as their national deity. And so we can understand their going to inquire of one of the Lord’s prophets. There were cross-currents in their life. There was the idolatrous current which led them to do what was forbidden by God, and yet there was the old current which led them to inquire of God. We may find an analogy to this still.
1. There is this inquiring when we ask for light and help in prayer, while at the same time we are determined to follow what pleases ourselves.
2. There is this inquiry when we search the Bible while yet we are resolved to see in it only certain things.
III. The divine treatment.
1. Why it must be futile to inquire of God while bent on our own way.
(1) God requires submission.
(2) God requires sincerity.
2. How God shows the futility of inquiring of Him while we are bent on our own way. “I the Lord will answer him.”
(1) He allows our dispositions to work out some terrible result to bring us to shame. We are ruined in our estate, or in our health. Some child whom we idolise may prove a grief to us.
(2) He allows us to get into despondency and despair. No one who puts an idol in the place of God is above being unhinged. Especially is the devotee who has his darling sin the likely victim of despondency.
(3) Or He allows us to be hardened so as to be unable to see the difference between right and wrong. (R. Einlayson, B. A.)
Idols in the heart
I. The principle laid down. As a magnet attracts out of rubbish only the bits of iron for which it has an affinity, so the idol-idea in a man’s mind will make him fix on whatever will minister to it, and neglect everything else. The very Word of God will be but a mirror in which he sees reflected the thought which possesses his soul.
II. The working of this principle.
1. The apostles, like the rest of the Jews, had a settled conviction that the Messiah would be a great temporal Prince.
2. Another instance is found in those who seek a system of Church government in the New Testament.
3. The controversy as to the ultimate doom of the unbelieving. Restorationist, annihilist, and believer in endless torment--all appeal to same Word, and often to same texts.
III. Practical use. Three common idols--
1. The thought that to repent of sin and turn to Jesus at last hour will be enough.
2. The thought that good works are not essential to salvation.
3. The thought that the new life of faith must be ushered in with some great and overwhelming spasm of feeling. (J. Ogle.)
The idols in the heart a barrier to the truth
I. The idols that are in the heart and the stumbling blocks that are before the face, are the sins with which God’s people are sometimes chargeable.
II. Men professing to inquire after God while their idols are in their hearts, and their stumbling blocks before their faces; or, the gross inconsistency of seeking to mingle the service of God with the pursuit of sin.
1. Men may pray from the influence of custom.
2. From the promptings of conscience.
3. From the desire to stand, well with their fellow men.
4. From a yam desire to set themselves right with God.
III. God taking notice of the idols that are in men’s hearts, and the stumbling-blocks that are before their faces, or the faithful warnings which God addresses to those who follow sin while they profess to serve Him.
1. He intimates that He is perfectly acquainted with us.
2. He tells us that He cannot answer the requests of those who indulge in sin.
3. He shows us how unreasonable it is to expect that He will be inquired of by us. (Evangelical Preacher.)
Heart disease the worst disease
Manton says, “What would we think of a man who complained of the toothache, or of a cut finger, when all the while he was wounded at the heart? Would it not seem very strange?” Yet men will lament anything sooner than the depravity of their hearts. Many will confess their wandering thoughts in prayer, but will not acknowledge the estrangement of their hearts from God. They will be sorry for having spoken angrily, but not for having a passionate heart. They will own to Sabbath breaking, but never lament their want of love to Jesus, which is a heart matter. The evil of their hearts seems nothing to them: their tongues, hands, feet, are all that they notice. What! will they cry over a cut finger, and feel no fear when they have a dagger thrust into their bowels? Oh, madness of sinners, that they trifle most with that disease which is the most dangerous, and lies at the bottom of all other ills. God’s great complaint of men is that they set up in their hearts idols which they themselves think nothing of. Certain in our day are so far gone that they even deny that the human heart is diseased. What then? It does but prove the intimate connection between the heart and the eyes. A perverted heart soon creates a blinded eye. Of course, a depraved heart does not see its own depravity. Oh that we could lead men to think and feel aright about their hearts; but this is the last point to which we can bring them! They beat about the bush, and mourn over any and every evil except the source and fountain of it all. Lord, teach me to look within. May I attend even more to myself than to my acts. Purge Thou the spring, that the stream may no longer be defiled. I would begin where Thou dost begin, and beseech Thee to give me a new heart. Thou sayest, “My son, give Me thine heart.” Lord, I do give it to Thee, but at the same time I pray, “Lord, give me a new heart”; for without this my heart is not worth Thy having. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Idolatry in the heart
Travellers tell us that there is a tribe in Africa so given to superstition that they fill their huts and hovels with so many idols that they do not even leave room for their families. How many men there are who fill their hearts with the idols of sin, so that there is no room for the Living God, or for any of His holy principles! (John Bate.)
I the Lord will answer him that cometh according to the multitude of his idols.
Answered according to their idols
With them, as froward, the All-seeing will, in the psalmist’s terribly bold phrase, “show Himself froward”; they will incur that penalty which Scripture describes as a blinding of their eyes and a hardening of their heart, and which essentially consists in their being left to themselves without the light which they do not sincerely seek for--left, in fact, to take their own way, and see what will come of it. This line of Biblical language has caused difficulties which cannot be passed over; the more so, because one passage in which it is found (Isaiah 6:10) is of all passages in the Old Testament the one most frequently cited in the New Testament; and St. John, with a startling distinctness, attributes the “blinding” and “hardening” to the Lord. The explanation must be found in that law of ethical life whereby persistency in self-will--the process, as Shakespeare, in an awfully vivid passage, calls it, of “growing hard in viciousness”--does inevitably produce moral insensibility. All serious moralists, whatever be their theological standpoint, will admit this to be a fact; and all who believe in a God will see in it a revelation of His character, so that when it works He is, in fact, allowing it to take its course. And it is the method of Scripture writers to impress the fact on men’s minds with a concrete vividness, by representing such action on God’s part as a literal penal infliction. There, anyhow, stands the fact, and we have to reckon with it. Let us’ also fear, and be on our guard, lest, for lack of the single-eyed purpose which our Lord insists upon in His great sermon, we too should be left in the great darkness which waits like a shadow on hardness of heart. (Canon Bright.)
The blight of the idol
A man’s vision determines what kind of revelation he will accept. It will guide him in the choice of his prophet: “Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their heart, and put the stumbling block of their iniquity before their face: should I be inquired of at all by them?” (Ezekiel 14:3). When an inquirer comes with his idol in his heart, he is not an inquirer, but a claimant; he has brought with him the only answer which he is prepared to entertain: he falls over the stumbling block of his iniquity, and misses the light of the bright and morning star. How that “according to” reverberates through the prophet’s messages! Here it declares that every idol carries with it a lie that will be believed for truth. There is an atmosphere in which the true prophet cannot draw his breath and speak distinctly; the false prophet can and that is the disaster. “Mischief shall come upon mischief, and rumour shall be upon rumour; then shall they seek a vision of the prophet; but the law shall perish from the priest, and counsel from the ancients” (Ezekiel 7:26). when idols flourish, ideals perish. (H. E. Lewis.)
They are all estranged from Me through their idols.
Alienation from God
We read here, in God’s own words, His rule of dealing with persons who come to Him in a certain disposition of mind.
1. The word “estranged” implies a former condition of close relationship and affection, from which they have since fallen. You would not apply the term to foreigners. You would not say of a Frenchman that he was estranged from this country, simply because he never belonged to it; but if an Englishman resided so long in Paris as to lose his patriotism and interest in our affairs, you would say that he was estranged. So, again, you would not say of a mere acquaintance, if you ceased to see him, that he was estranged from you; but if the love of an old friend grow cold, if a child become indifferent to his home, or a husband fail in his devotion to his wife, you describe such a falling off as estrangement. In this temper certain elders of Israel presented themselves before the prophet of God. They came to inquire His will and seek His aid. What self-delusion, then, is this! what blindness of heart! Men coming to God to inquire of Him, and not knowing that there is that within them which will forbid God’s hearing them! Who has persuaded them to come this way at all? No voice but that of their own heart! And yet do you say that it is their heart which bars the way of God against them? “Estranged from Me through their idols!” Oh, to us, who may be as these elders of Israel, how hard does this rule of God press upon us! Like them, only far more favoured in all spiritual blessings, with everything to turn our feet towards God, the very currents of society swaying us in this direction, the breeze of fashion gently impelling us hither, the hand of custom with its constant but almost unfelt pressure laid upon the helm of our daily life to guide us within the haven of the Church. We learn to say our prayers, and prayer becomes a trick of words. Bibles are cheap, and in every man’s hand. And yet, even now, there may be amongst us some who do not remember, that with idols in our heart we are estranged from God, and that He will not be inquired of by us at all!
2. But this is not the worst. The question God puts expects the answer “No”; and yet it is not the answer which He gives it. His answer admits us to a nearer view of His mysterious dealings with man. We see Him work by a rule that we know nothing of, a rule of mystery, marvellous and inscrutable, but one which example and experience teach us He applies with unerring force. When men thus estranged and alienated from Him in heart present themselves in person before Him, He does not refuse them an audience. They pray--He hears--their prayer is answered: but how fatal is the gift which He grants! “I the Lord will answer him that cometh according to the multitude of his idols.” What illustrations of the Divine conduct does Scripture offer both in the Old Testament and the New! The Jews clamoured for a king, and God gave them one, but in this wise,--“I gave thee a king in Mine anger, and took him away in My wrath.” They cried in the wilderness for flesh,--“So they did eat, and were well filled, for He gave them their own desire; they were not disappointed of their lust. But while the meat was yet in their mouths,” etc., “and smote down the chosen men that were in Israel.” Balaam received the king’s messengers a second time, and though God had once answered him, he professed to inquire of Him again. He came with idols in his heart, his affection estranged from God: and what was the result? Did God forbid his praying? Oh that He had done so! Did He refuse his prayer? Alas! He granted it, saying, “Rise up and go with them.” And Balaam, too happy to get the permission, went. But God’s anger was kindled because he went: and the end was that he fell from sin to sin, selling himself to do the tempter’s work; and he died among God’s enemies, his own pious prayers and blessings ringing the curse of the hypocrite in his ears. There is yet another example nearer the person of the blessed Lord Himself; and therefore the warning is more terrible. Jesus chose but twelve to help Him in His work; and even on one of these He looked--a man with idols in his heart--and said of him, “Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?” This man came near to Christ, as the eleven: he passed as one of them. He was with them almost up to the very last; he just wanted a little time to go away and finally arrange the plot, and that time he had. God gave him the opportunity,--say not gave, but permitted him. Jesus looked at him and said, “What thou doest, do quickly.” Was ever prayer heard like that? was ever man on earth answered after the multitude of his idols like that?
3. God’s purpose in answering the evil desires of hearts alienated from His love. Their heart is to become their snare, the net in which they shall be caught, the pitfall in which they shall be entrapped. Your talents and tastes and affections and ruling desires,--the gifts with which nature’s hand has made you rich, the inheritance with which you started in life,--your physical strength, your youth, your beauty, your wit, your attractiveness, your amiable temper, your power of sympathy, your grace of manner, your aptitude for business, your strong will, your influence over others--with these you made your casts early in life: they have brought you in glittering spoils and stores of comfort, and have enriched your home with pleasures and with wealth. But these very instruments of gain, what else have you done with them? Have they entangled you too much in the world? impeded you on your way to God? implicated you dangerously with others? Have you ensnared others, and made inextricable confusion in their projects of a peaceful, holy, happy life? And now, as you grow older, are you so involved in this world’s business that you cannot escape its toils? When Christ, the rightful Master of your heart, calls to you from the quiet shore, and bids you leave your nets, and become, if not expressly “fishers of men,” yet at least servants in His work, is your heart free to follow Him? is your heart His at all? nay, is your heart your own to give? Have you not given it away already to idols, to false gods, to the world? or it may be, you have lost your heart in sin! (Archdeacon Furse.)
Things that estrange the heart from God
It was a true and beautiful remark made by the mother of Wm. Allan, the Quaker chemist, when she was seeking to win her son to give more attention to religion, and to devote less time to the prosecution of his studies in his favourite and fascinating science: “Remember, my boy, that Christ cast even the doves out of the temple.” The lesson thus gently taught was effectually taken to heart. Young Allan learned, with lasting profit, that the most innocent and lawful of earthly objects of interest may not occupy that central place in our affections which our Saviour claims for Himself; but in the souls of the redeemed all other desires will, without painful effort, arrange themselves at due distances from this centre.
Repent, and turn yourselves from your idols.--
1. Repentance is a turning from sin to God. It is not any turning, but a turning of the judgment, so that men judge otherwise of God, of His laws and ways, of sin, of themselves, than before; a turning of the will and affections, so that they are carried wholly and fully unto God (Joel 2:12).
2. Repentance is a continued act. It is a grace, and must have its daily operation, as well as other graces. Where a spring breaks forth it is always flowing.
3. Sinners should stir up themselves, and do the utmost which lies in their power to further their turning unto God. “Turn yourselves from your idols”; use all arguments you can to cause your hearts to turn from idols, and from other sinful ways. Consider--
(1) That they are separated from the Lord (Isaiah 59:2).
(2) That man’s life is short, and the pleasures of sin but for a season.
(3) The daily treasuring up of wrath, and danger of final impenitency (Romans 2:5). It is a seal of condemnation.
(4) The condemnations of a man’s own heart and conscience (Isaiah 57:20-21).
(5) Absolute necessity of repenting and turning unto God (Luke 13:3). “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”
4. True repentance and turning to the Lord doth manifest itself in the effects and fruits of it: it hath meet fruit (Matthew 3:8), worthy fruit (Luke 3:8). Now, here are three effects thereof in these words:
(1) When the soul is truly turned to God it seeks to turn others; it is not content that itself is come to God, but would have many come to Him.
(2) It dispenses with no sin; it saith not, Lord, be merciful to me in this, but turns from “all abominations,” from every idol, the most daring sin shall then go to it (Hosea 14:8).
(3) It avoids the occasions of sin and appearances of evil. (W. Greenhill, M. A.)
Sin not tolerated
When his people at Wittenberg showed him their licences to sin, Luther’s answer was, “Unless you repent you will all perish.”. . . “Please God, I’ll make a hole in his drum,” he said, when he first heard of Tetzel selling these indulgences. (Anecdotes of Luther.)
Which separateth himself from Me.
Point of contact disturbed by sin
Dr. Cortland Meyers says that one of the electric bells in his home recently refused to ring. He failed to discover the cause. An electrician was sent for. After some time spent over it he found that right up under the bell, so insignificant as to be almost imperceptible, was a place where the point of contact was lost. It is often so with the Church. “Battery all right, machinery and wires all right, but the point of contact is defective”--disobedience, pride, covetousness have estranged the heart from God. (R. Venting.)
Sin’s power to separate man from God
A man never gets to the end of the distance that separates between him and the Father, if his face is turned away from God. Every moment the separation is increasing. Two lines start from each other at the acutest angle, are farther apart from each other the farther they are produced, until at last the one may be away up by the side of God’s throne, and the other away down in the deepest depths of hell. (A. Maclaren.)
That the house of Israel may go no more astray from Me.
Chastisement of God’s people
Manton says, “There is more squaring and hewing and hacking used about a stone that is to be set in a stately palace than that which is placed in an ordinary building; and the vine is pruned when the bramble is not looked after, but let alone to grow to its full length.” This should reconcile believers to their chastisements. Brambles certainly have a fine time of it, and grow after their own pleasure. We have seen their long shoots reaching far and wide, and no knife has threatened them as they luxuriated upon the commons and waste lands. The poor vine is eat down so closely that little remains of it but bare stems. Yet, when clearing time comes, and the brambles are heaped for their burning, who would not rather be the vine? (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Though these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they should deliver but their own souls.
The limit of influence
The solemnity of this assurance is increased by the fact that it forms quite an exception to the general tenor of the Divine government. Again and again God has saved the earth because of the righteous men who were in it: He would have spared the cities of the plain if Abraham could have found ten praying souls in the whole of their corrupt population; He blessed the house of Potiphar for Joseph’s sake; He allowed the intercession of Moses to shield Israel from judgment well deserved; for Paul’s sake He, saved the ship in the storm. In the text we come upon a sharp variation of the general method: no longer is Noah or Daniel or Job to count for more than one; the day of prevailing intercession is to close; character is to be individualised, and the diffusion of collateral benefit is to pass away forever. Terrible as it may seem on first reading, yet there is quite a deep well of comfort in all this wilderness of desolation. It will be observed that though the darkness brought down upon the earth by sin is very great, yet through all the gloom the figures of Noah, Daniel, and Job are seen in all their vividness and pathetic suggestiveness, showing that the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and that their memory is precious to Him. It is clear, however, that the text is meant to be a warning rather than a comfort, and it is in this spirit that we must approach its interpretation. It is a warning to individual men. They cannot tell how soon they will be called upon to cease their intercessory ministry. Specially, however, is this a warning to households. How terrible is this tragedy, that a man should no longer be the priest of his own family! The son shall be separated from the father, and the daughter from the mother, and shall realise in an awful individualism of position how true it is that every soul must give an account of itself to God. The Lord will not spare the children when they have gone astray, having broken every holy vow and shattered every commandment issued from heaven. “I will also send wild beasts among you,” etc. This is a threatening which may operate in either of two ways; either because the children have forfeited Divine confidence, or because the parents have abandoned the right way, and can only be brought home again by processes of affliction and desolation. This is a warning also to nations. The nation is saved because of the living Church that is within it. Prophets must not cease to pray for the land in which they live. Amid political tumult and uproar the voice of their prayer may seem to be but a feeble sound, yet they are called upon by the very genius of their faith to keep the way clear between heaven and earth for large and profitable intercourse. Into the mystery of intercession we cannot enter, but we find that it is at the very heart of things, a rule and a law, a judgment and a blessing, an opportunity large in its possibilities, but always hastening to a solemn conclusion. The great principle of mediation is, of course, most vividly and gloriously represented by the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ; but even in His case the priesthood is to cease, the long and loving prayer for others is to come to a perpetual close: “Then cometh the end,” etc. We live in a great intercessory period; the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings that cannot be uttered; we need not fear because our prayer halts and stumbles as to the mere eloquence of its expression; the eloquence of prayer is in its sincerity; to the man who is of a broken and a contrite heart will God look, and on him will He set signs of approval. A wondrous gift is it to have the gift of intercession, the power of putting into heavenly words the wants of other men, and the power of pleading with God on behalf of those who never plead for themselves. Some suppliants can but pray for themselves; others can only pray concerning great events and great subjects; others, more Christ-like, seem to carry the world in their hearts, and to plead for continents and empires in great intercessions. Let us get a clear view of the system of spiritual government under which we live. We are to conclude all our prayers, and indeed begin them and continue them, with the sentiment, “For Christ’s sake.” We cannot understand the mystery of this ground, and yet we feel how solid it is, and how impossible it would be for us to pray without it. It is in Christ that we find God. It is through Christ that we find access to the throne of the heavenly grace. We do not plead Christ as if we were pleading with an arbitrary deity, who would not do anything for us ourselves, but would only do it through the mediation of His Son, or because of His partiality for one whom He calls His Only-Begotten. Though our prayers are to be heard for Christ’s sake, yet Christ Himself was given for our sake! Herein is love, that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us! God sent His Son to seek and to save that which was lost. (J. Parker, D. D.)
A delusion dispelled
I. The righteousness of the most godly cannot avail for the ungodly.
1. We prove this, first, by referring you to our text, and asking you to read it for yourselves. Mark ye how the anger of the Lord kindles, and how the words are launched forth like hot thunderbolts from the lips of the Most High.
2. Next, I ask you to inspect more narrowly the portraits of these men of God, who are presumed to have stood counsel for the defendants, and to have occasioned so much astonishment, because with all their special pleadings they signally lost their case. The Lord declares that if the whole three were put together they should not save son or daughter.
3. This truth may be further substantiated by observing the course of Providence as regards the things of this life. Could the merits of friends and parents secure the salvation of their relatives or children, we must expect to see “the son or the daughter” of a righteous man screened from the full punishment of his own misdeeds; but we have evidence that such is not the case.
4. Painful though it be, I must carry the assertion a stage further. The righteousness of good men has not availed to save their relatives from the terrors of the world to come. Cain, where are you tonight? Are you sitting here; and do you dream that your brother Abel now with God can by any means bless you? That must not be. Dispel the delusion.
II. The prayers of the greatest intercessors cannot avail if men persist in their unbelief.
1. Remember that all the prayers of godly men cannot alter the nature of sin, and if they cannot alter the nature of sin, then they that continue in it must perish.
2. Moreover, the prayers of good men cannot alter the conditions of the eternal future, so long as the present abides the same. There is no law more immutable than that “to be good is to be happy,” and to be bad is sooner or later to be wretched. It must be so. Trust not, therefore, to the prayers of others, but come to Christ for yourselves, that you may be cleansed from sin and made meet for heaven.
3. Perhaps you say, “Sir, I did not think prayer would suffice to effect a change in my circumstances without a corresponding change in myself; but I thought that somehow by prayer I should be compelled to believe and to repent.” Compelled to believe and to repent? Well, man, what sort of repentance and faith must that be which comes of compulsion? (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Good men: their power and their weakness
I. God recognises the existence of good men. Many ages had passed away since two of the men mentioned here, Noah and Job, had left the world. Yet they were not forgotten by God. Their histories were fresh to Him. Good men are ever before the mind of God. They are “had in everlasting remembrance.”
2. God appreciates the services of good men. The language implies that Noah, Daniel, and Job could do much for the world. God hath been pleased to endow men with power for great achievements, and when this power is rightly used He grants the smile of His approval.
III. God limits the influence of good men. These men could do much, had done much; but there was much they could not do. When righteous retribution overtakes us, the services of the best men that ever lived will be of no avail.
IV. God secures the salvation of good men. Their righteousness ensures their salvation. A righteous man--a man right in his relation towards God, standing fully acquitted before his Maker, and right in the principles and purposes of his own soul, is safe everywhere--safe amidst the most terrible judgments of heaven. (D. Thomas, D. D.)
Noah, Daniel, and Job
If we look at the history of the three holy men mentioned in the text we shall find that they did save their souls or their lives by their righteousness. And it is manifestly in accordance with our own deepest sense of right and justice that this should be so; the notion that good deeds will bring a reward, and that evil deeds will bring punishment, is too deep to be rooted out. You perceive how thoroughly it was assumed as a principle by Abraham (Genesis 18:25), as it must be by anyone who has a sense of the goodness of God, and who believes that the feelings of right and justice which he finds in his own soul are but the reflexion of God’s image there,--assumed as a principle, I say, that God would make a difference between the evil and the good, and would allow a righteous man to live by his righteousness. Precisely the same kind of doctrine may be found in the New Testament. For let us turn to that solemn description which our blessed Lord has Himself left to us of the final judgment; I mean the description which is contained in St. Matthew 25:1-46. Who shall say, with this description of the judgment before him, that the last judgment will not be a judgment according to works, that righteousness will not save souls alive? The description is only a sketch, it is not intended to be complete; but this feature is there, you cannot get rid of it, it is that which gives to the whole judgment its tone and its complexion. And why should we desire to get rid of it, when the principle upon which it is based is so thoroughly in accordance with all our sense of right, and in accordance too with those other words of Christ in which He declares that those who have done good shall rise to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of condemnation? And why also, with such words of our Lord before us, should we hesitate to give to the words of St. James their full and undiminished force when He says, “Ye see, then, how by works a man is justified and not by faith only”? (Bishop Harvey Goodwin.)
Or if I send a pestilence.
Public calamity a call to private humiliation
Depend upon it, we have need, and as the years roll away we shall have more and more need, to remind ourselves of the unseen Hand which sends us our blessings or withdraws them from us. New appliances of mechanical skill have a tendency to keep God out of our sight. The simple machinery which depended on the wind or the stream for motion did not suffer men so easily to forget their immediate dependence on God. His agency is half obscured when they become independent of the breath of heaven, and of the moisture which cometh down from above. And so there is a constant danger of our lapsing into practical atheism, if we allow ourselves, in the mere contemplation of a natural law apart from its Divine Author; or attend to its results, without adverting to the revealed cause of its operation. It is no disparagement to natural science to declare that, pursued in any but a godly spirit, it sometimes has a tendency to obscure the vision of God: to interpose hard names and technical phrases between Him and ourselves; and practically to keep Him out of our sight. Nay, the very progress of civilisation, the increase of wealth and refinement and luxury--all have the same tendency. The table daily spread without our care helps to keep God out of sight. And the special value of Scripture is seen in the unconditional and most unceremonious way in which it brushes aside this web of words; puts God, the Giver, prominently forward; and vindicates His absolute Sovereignty in creation. When Christ says, “He maketh His sun to rise,”--His language is altogether unscientific, to be sure; but He declares a truth which to the devout soul is of paramount importance; namely, that the heavenly bodies are all His creatures; and that, in reality, the phenomena which attend them are but the visible expression of His will. While thoughtful men are investigating the natural history of a calamity which, unless it be stayed, will inevitably press with terrible severity on the poor;--which, if it spreads, may bring contagion to all our doors,--occasion death within our homes and darken every domestic hearth;--“a more excellent way” is revealed to us in Holy Scripture; a method which is within the reach of us all. I allude, of course, to individual acts of repentance,--personal efforts after holiness,--the heartfelt use of private prayer. The special mention of three of God’s chiefest saints “Noah, Daniel, and Job,” reminds us that we must as individuals seek to turn away God’s anger from this Church and nation. What, above all, shall be said of our unconcern for the spiritual wants of the benighted heathen,--of our own countrymen in foreign parts, of our fellow citizens here at home? (Dean Burgon.)
Ye shall know that I have not done without cause all that I have done in it, saith the Lord God.
Waiting for God’s vindication
I. The truths doubted. In all ages, as in our own, men have doubted the goodness and justice of God, and have murmured at His acts. They reject consolation, and charge Jehovah with cruelty. Speak of the sufferings of Jesus for us, and the agnostic declares that is simply another example of injustice.
II. Causes of scepticism. Ask for a reason of doubt, and the rationalist asserts that pain contradicts either the goodness or the power of the Divine Being. But reasons given are not always causes. Grief is selfish, and tears blind us. Most people in trouble are like a ship directed by a careless captain, and left with full canvas when the tempest bursts upon it. We sink because we are not prepared for gales. Men indulge false hopes, refuse all warnings, expect all things but death, and when the end comes they cry out that they have been wronged. Custom makes them regard a loan as a possession, and they call restoration robbery.
III. The futility of doubt. Of what use is doubt of the fundamental truths of Christianity? How does it work? A sinner suffering penalty is hardened by doubt of God’s justice, and discouraged from repentance by question of His mercy. A saint in agony and near to death is plunged in deeper darkness by doubt of all that remains to her. Doubt confirms a transgressor, and robs the holy of consolation. To whom, then, is it good?
IV. Comfort in God’s truth. If we could look at sin in its hideous deformity, its deep guilt, its inhuman effects, with sound vision, we mould be slow to complain. If God did not punish moral evil we could not respect Him, and if He permitted wrong to go uncorrected the holy could not hope. Haste and impatience hide truth from us. If we could see the results of suffering in character we might be consoled. History is an account of the martyrdom of man. But martyrs have not complained. They have preferred truth, beauty, goodness to the alternatives, and have not regretted the price. Can we confide in God and wait? And while you wait, be not idle. There are works meet for repentance. God’s winds are hard to face as “head winds,” but wondrously helpful to those who will sail with them. The Divine purpose works toward correction of evil and edification of good. Build with God, and you will have naught to tear down. (C. R. Henderson, D. D.)