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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Ezekiel 3". The Biblical Illustrator. https://studylight.org/
commentaries/ eng/ tbi/ ezekiel-3.html. 1905-1909. New York.
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Ezekiel 3". The Biblical Illustrator. https://studylight.org/
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He caused me to eat that roll.
The mystic mind
1. There are few writers in the Bible who have imprinted the characteristics of their own mind on their writings more than the prophet Ezekiel, and this is so remarkably the case that we can hardly rise from the perusal of his book without being more forcibly than ever convinced that inspiration is not in such Sense literal as robe independent of the medium through which it passes. In fact we may almost feel that it is more than probable that God selects the peculiar dispositions and characteristics of men for the media of His revealed truths on account of some similarity between their tendencies and the subject matter of the truth revealed. Important practical results flow from these considerations, especially under the three following heads. First, that this being the case, many superficial difficulties are cleared away from the surface of Scripture from the consideration of the various dispositions and modes of expression of the writers. Secondly, very considerable encouragement and comfort may be derived from the circumstance that persons with similar dispositions to our own have written portions of the Word of God. And thirdly, it leads us to see that from this analogy of His providence we may expect certain similar results in the conduct of the Church and the world in our own day.
2. With this view the study of Ezekiel’s prophecy is remarkable. It reflects a very distinct order of disposition. He delights in mystery, allegory, and the awful; he is far less beautiful and sublime than Isaiah, but far more terrible and alarming. He has scarcely any common ground with Jeremiah, for while the latter constantly appeals to the deeper feelings of our nature, he lacked, to a great degree, the energy of character to make him their martyr; while, on the other hand, Ezekiel seems to have despised an appeal to them, and without hesitation or complaint showed his mastery over them. With Daniel Ezekiel stands in strong contrast; he lacks his refinement, his reserve, and the high sculpture of his character. He seems to have been a man of great power of self-command and of the suppression, for the sake of religion, of the tenderer emotions of nature. God told him that his wife should die in order that her death and his mode of bearing it might be an allegory to the people. The event took place, and he yielded to no human sensation on account of it.
3. But my more immediate object is, first to show that in all these respects he is one of a large class of individuals, and secondly, that that class have a direct office in the Church of God. His was the mind suited and suiting itself to mystery and allegory, which, after all, are handmaids to each other. The allegory is the expressed mystery. The allegoriser is the poet of the mystery. Thus the minds which can appreciate the mystery and express themselves in the allegory are cognate the one to the other. In the same way the disposition which inclines towards the comprehension of mystery is one which sees with a firm and unwavering eye the great truths that lie beyond the present state. There is another property and virtue of the man of mystical mind which is an important one; he is one who will consent to bow the ordinary understanding in homage to the superior spiritual perceptions, and the exercise of the reason to the moral sense. Thirdly, the mystical mind is one that is able to comprehend the sacramental nature of God’s world. We are in danger nowadays, from a dread of mysticism, of accepting nothing as true but that which can be both suggested and finally proved by human reason.
4. But while what I have called the mystical mind is one so suited to peculiar crises of the history of man, it is, nevertheless, subject to its own infirmities and faults. Inasmuch as it is able to transcend the ordinary perceptions of religion it will be inclined to pass by with contempt those who are unable to expand its limits, and from a professed dread of narrowness of mind in things to do with religion and faith, will itself become narrowed by the most rigid limits of superstition and conventionalism. Again the allegoriser will sometimes become hazy, indefinite, and uncertain in his descriptions, and tend at last as much to mislead those who follow him, as those who refuse to take a bold step in the guidance of their fellow creatures induce them to stop short of the fulness of spiritual truth.
5. But I proceed to elucidate the rules that I have laid down with regard to the character which Ezekiel represents by some illustrations borrowed from those occasions in which their influence is felt, and their operation called into action. It is very apparent how important a witness minds of this description have to bear in a day like our own, when upon all sides of us we see the inclination to discredit old received opinions, and to cast a dimness over that clear light which had shone to the eyes of our ancestors from the far-off days of antiquity. He, then, who is able to discern in connection with the Church, the sacramental force of religion, has nowadays a great mission to fulfil. It is not merely the power to perceive and to appreciate the mysteries of our faith, but to discern under the external surface of things a deep sacramental meaning.
5. But independently of the mind that can conceive or the poetic power that can find the fitting term of expression, this kind of character must enforce thought and word by example. Acts are great allegories, and the parables of men’s lives are most efficient in their sufferings. The actions of Ezekiel told more on the Jewish people than either his genius or his parables. His loathsome food and the tearless tomb of his wife preached the most effective lesson to the captive Jews. His was the peculiar character which could do great acts of daring and suffer manfully; and the mind which I have been describing above under the title of the allegorical, is the one capable of those powerful and speaking deeds which so affect a generation. (E. Monro.)
Experience of the truth
The symbol showed that Ezekiel accepted his call. He humbly gave in to God, hard as the task was. Spiritual submission is the first lesson of religion. He opened his mouth in faith. If we trust God, we can trust even His judgments. The bitter of His procuring is as sweet as honey. The symbol also expressed the prophet’s mandate. God’s will can be known, and is known. The prophet bad waited till it was burned in on him that his was a distinct call, a distinct work. He ate the roll. He was able to expound the book. The great temptation is to talk without the book, to enter the pulpit whether the roll has been eaten or not. We have to learn the contents of our Christian faith. Personal submission, experimental knowledge, testimony. Obedience is the one law of life, and the one secret of peace. (Christian Commonwealth.)
Realisation of the truth
Sweeter than honey is the Word of God in the mouth. What is comparable to the taste of a Divine communication? To know that God is, that is much. One tells how he “danced with delight” when he realised that there was a God. To know past all doubting that God has spoken, that is far more. To see the darkness which we had thought impenetrable impaled and stabbed through by a living light, is there any ecstasy comparable with that? To those who have exhausted themselves in question and conjecture, how sweetly comes the Voice that speaks with authority and from behind the veil!
Thou art not sent to a people of a strange speech.
The danger of abused privileges
If you consider ministers simply as the labourers of God, you will perceive that he whose scene of cultivation is an English parish, has not necessarily an advantage over him who is appointed to a Hottentot settlement. We do not undervalue the sufferings of the missionary or the merchant; but if the merchant abroad grows richer than the merchant at home, his superior wealth is regarded as a counterpoise to his toil; and in like manner if the minister of the Hottentot settlement win more souls than the minister in an English parish, his greater success must be considered as balancing his greater privations. Hence with all our admiration of that moral chivalry which leads a man to abandon home, and give himself to the work of a missionary, we are far enough from allowing that he deserves more of our sympathy, than another who is devoting his strength to the work of the ministry in the land of his birth. There is many a district in this country which offers more resistance to spiritual cultivation, than the wilds of absolute paganism; and he whose lot is cast in one of such districts, and who wrestles apparently uselessly from year to year, would make an exchange incalculably in his favour if he were transferred to a village in some far distant land where Christianity is humanising the savage, where the truths of the Bible are preached in their simplicity, and faithful men are overthrowing the superstitions and exterminating the vices of a long-degraded tribe.
I. The first thing that we consider is the truth that the foreign field would have been more productive than the home; in other words, to make the case completely our own, that ministerial success in an English parish may be far less than in the missionary settlement. We now wish to press upon your notice, as worthy of the closest attention, that the likelihood of men giving ear to the Gospel must diminish in proportion to the frequency of its repetition. It is with spiritual things as with natural; you may live within the sound of the roar of the cannon till you become insensible to the sound, and sleep without being disturbed by it; yes, and you may grow deaf to the thunders of the Word, and listen so often as not to be startled by them! Can it, then, be said on any principle of human calculation, that a man who has stood for many years the formal hearer of the Gospel till the preaching of it has deafened him, is a more promising subject for ministerial attack than the rude dweller in the desert, who never yet has been told of immortality, and never been offered salvation? In the one case we are opposed by ignorance, barbarism, and superstition; and these are formidable adversaries: in the other, we are opposed with enlightened heads and untouched hearts; and this is the combination which, of all others, presents an effectual resistance. It is this tendency of Christianity, to harden where it does not soften, which renders our home parishes so unpromising as fields of ministration. So that whatever the advantage of the home minister, there is so vast a counterpoise in the increased resistance to spiritual impression, which is the produce of a disregarded Gospel, that encouragement drawn from the words--“thou art not sent to a people of a strange speech, and of a hard language,” is quite overborne by the melancholy statement, “surely had I sent thee to them, they would have hearkened unto thee.”
II. If the foreign field of labour would be more productive than the home--if the heathen would repent though the house of Israel be obdurate;--why was Ezekiel not sent to men of a strange speech and a hard language? There is a mystery which is wholly impenetrable, why God should send the Gospel to one nation, and withhold it from another. We have no sufficient means of determining the election of nations; it appears well-nigh as inexplicable as the election of individuals,--at least we can only resolve both to the sovereign will of the Almighty, and say in the words of the Saviour, “Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Thy sight.” The heathen are as much redeemed men by the blood-shedding of Jesus, as those who are blessed with all the privileges of the Gospel; and in what degree the energies of the atonement may extend themselves to procure the acceptance of those who act up to the light of the dispensation in which they live, we pretend not to determine; neither will we have the hardihood to say, that those who are excluded from all privileges, must be necessarily excluded from all benefit. The heathen will be judged by the laws of the dispensation beneath which he lived. We are assured by infallible authority, that it shall be more tolerable in the judgment for the heathen who never heard of the Gospel, than for those who have heard and rejected it. Though strictly we can only infer from this, that there shall be a graduated scale of punishment; is it not a fair induction that everyone may be tried according to his opportunities? and if this be admitted, then, where the opportunities are small, so also is the responsibility; and we the less marvel that God should have given only little, seeing only little will be demanded in return. (H. Melvill, B. D.)
But the house of Israel will not hearken unto thee; for they will not hearken unto me.
The distinction between predestination and foreknowledge
God gives Ezekiel an express command to speak his words to the house of Israel (verse 4), and, at the same time, distinctly informs him that the house of Israel will not hearken or attend. The prophet is commanded to speak, and told, at the same time, that the preaching would be useless in regard of the working contrition and amendment in his hearers. Now we are well assured that God honours the ordinance of preaching, seeing that it is His chief engine for rousing those who are dead in trespasses and sins. But though this be the main use of preaching, it is clear from our text that it is not the only use. We shall not meddle with the mysterious things of God’s predestination, though there may be much in our text which is associated with this inscrutable doctrine. We have only to remark that God’s foreknowledge must be carefully distinguished from God’s predestination. They are often confounded, but never without injury to all that is fundamental in Christian theology. It is essential to the correctness of our every notion of God that we consider Him unconfined, whether by space or by time; and as, therefore, having possessed throughout the eternity already passed, an acquaintance with every event which shall occur in the eternity to come God foreknows, with unvarying accuracy, whether or not an individual, who is privileged to hear the Gospel, will so listen to the Word as to be benefited by its delivery. But this is a widely different thing from saying that God predestines the reception which shall be given to the message; and thus fixes, by a positive decree, that such or such hearers shall put from them the proffers of forgiveness. But, because known, must you pronounce it decreed? Will you say that God cannot be certain of a thing unless He Himself have determined that thing, and made arrangements for its occurrence? What! not foresee the shipwreck, unless He take the helm, and steer the vessel to the quicksand? But the chief question still remains to be examined--why God should enjoin the preaching of the Gospel in cases where He is assured, by His foreknowledge, that this preaching will be wholly ineffectual? We think the answer is to be found in the demands of the high moral government which God, undoubtedly, exercises over the creatures of this earth. There is no more common, and at the same time, no more palpable mistake, than that of considering the Almighty’s dealings with our race as referring wholly to man, and not at all to his Maker. I cannot understand how there could be equity in the sentences which shall be finally passed on Christians, unless there be now what we shall dare to call moral honesty in the offer of pardon which the Gospel makes to all men. We are apt to regard the preaching of the Gospel merely as an engine for the conversion of sinners, and lose sight of other ends which it may undoubtedly subserve, even when it fail of accomplishment. But we are to blame in confining our thoughts to an end in which we have an immediate concern, in place of extending them to those in which God Himself may be personally interested. We forget that God has to make provision for the thorough vindication of all His attributes when He shall bring the human race to judgment, and allot to each individual a portion in eternity. We forget that in all His dealings it must be His own honour to which He has the closest respect; and that this honour may require the appointment and contrivance of the means of grace, even when those means, in place of effecting conversion, are sure to do nothing but increase condemnation. We will hope that God had other ends in view than that of making His minister the savour of death unto death in bringing you up to His courts this day. We have no foreknowledge of the reception that you will give to the message; we can therefore deal with you all as with beings of whom we have hopes. Yes, indeed, hopes!--strong, earnest, scriptural hopes! We could pursue each one of you to the very verge of the grave, and still say we had hopes. We should not be hopeless, though the life were just ebbing, and the soul departing, and the Saviour not embraced. We should still feel--feel even in that moment of terrible extremity--that nothing was too hard for the Lord; and it would be in hope-a faint hope it would be--but still in hope, that we sat down by your bedside, and said to the fainting and almost lost man, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” (H. Melvill, B. D.)
Attention in listening
In the act of listening we are not only distinctly conscious of sounds so faint that they would not excite our notice but for the volitional direction of the attention, but we can single out these from the midst of others by a determined and sustained effort, which may even make us quite unconscious of the rest so long as that effort is kept up. Thus a person with a practised “musical ear” (as it is commonly but erroneously termed, it being not the ear, but the brain, which exerts this power), whilst listening to a piece of music played by a large orchestra, can single out any one part in the harmony and follow it through all its mazes; or can distinguish the sound of the weakest instrument in the whole band and follow its strain through the whole performance. And an experienced conductor will not only distinguish when some instrumentalist is playing out of tune, but will at once single out the offender from the midst of a numerous band. (Carpenter, “Mental Physiology.”)
All this and more than this you have been told, and told again, even till you are weary of hearing it, and till you could make the lighter of it, because you had so often heard it; like the smith’s dog, that is brought by custom to sleep under the noise of the hammers, and when the sparks do fly about his ears. (R. Baxter.)
The wilfulness of the impenitent
“A man’s will is his hell,” saith Bernard. “And it is easier,” saith another. “to deal with twenty men’s reasons than with one man’s will.” What hope is there of those that will not fear; or if they do, yet have made their conclusion afore-hand, and will stir no more than a stake in the midst of a stream? (J. Trapp.)
Responsiveness not easily evoked
Tyndall, in 1857, took a tube, a resonant jar, and a flame. By raising his voice to a certain pitch he made the silent flame to sing. The song was hushed. Then again the proper note was sounded, and the response was at once given by the flame. If the position varies, there is a tremor, but no song. Again it stretches out its little tongue and begins its song. When the finger stopped the tube the flame was silent. Standing at the extremity of the room one may command the fiery singer. Immediately sonorous pulses call out the song. What greater skill is needed to evoke the melody of a reluctant, shrinking soul! The adjustments of the human heart are more delicate. The laws of excitation and persuasion therefore need attract as careful study as those of heat and sound. (E. P. Thwing.)
The hardening of the heart
On a winter evening, when the frost is setting in with growing intensity, and when the sun is now far past the meridian, and gradually sinking in the Western sky, there is a double reason why the ground grows every moment harder and more impenetrable to the plough. On the one hand, the frost of evening, with ever-increasing intensity, is indurating the stiffening clods. On the other hand, the genial rays, which alone can soften them, are every moment withdrawing and losing their enlivening power. Take heed that it be not so with you. As long as you are unconverted, you are under a double process of hardening. The frosts of an eternal night are settling down upon your souls; and the Sun of Righteousness with westering wheel, is hastening to set upon you for evermore. If, then, the plough of grace cannot force its way into your ice-bound heart today, what likelihood is there that it will enter tomorrow? (R. McCheyne.)
Ministerial obligation not dependent on success
“I am thankful for success,” says Mr. Spurgeon, “but I feel in my heart a deeper gratitude to God for permission to work for Him. It seems to me to be one of the highest gifts of His grace to be permitted to take any share whatever in His grand enterprise for the salvation of the sons of men.” It is even so; and they are blessed who realise it, for never are they allowed to labour in vain. Indeed, not unfrequently, when all is seeming failure and sore discouragement, great success is near. The Lord has often first to humble before He can greatly use. It is told of an eminent man that when at one period of his ministry he became, through discouragement, sorely tempted to abandon both sphere and work, he had a singular dream. He thought he was working with a pickaxe on the top of a basaltic rock. His muscular arm brought down stroke after stroke for hours, but the rock was hardly indented. He said to himself at last, “It is useless; I will pick no more.” Suddenly a stranger stood by his side, and said to him, “Are you to do no more work?” “No.” “But were you not set to do this task?” “Yes.” “Why then abandon it?” “My work is vain; I make no impression on the rock.” The stranger replied solemnly, “What is that to you? Your duty is to pick whether the rock yields or not. Your work is in your own hands--the result is not; work on.” He resumed his task. The first blow was given with almost superhuman force, and the rock flew into a thousand pieces. This was only a dream, but it so impressed him that, through grace, he was able to turn it to good account; for when he awoke he returned to his work with fresh interest and hope, and with greater tokens of his Master’s presence and power than ever before.
In a newspaper we met with the following:--“There was an old turnpike man, on a quiet country road, whose habit was to shut his gate at night and take his nap. One dark, wet midnight I knocked at his door, calling, ‘Gate, gate!’ ‘Coming,’ said the voice of the old man. Then I knocked again and once more the voice replied, ‘Coming.’ This went on for some time, till at length I grew quite angry, and jumping off my horse, opened the door and demanded why he cried ‘Coming’ for twenty minutes, and never came. ‘Who is there?’ said the old man, in a quiet, sleepy voice, rubbing his eyes. ‘What d’ye want, sir?’ Then awakening, ‘Bless yer, sir, and ax yer pardon, I was asleep; I gets so used to hearing ‘em knock, that I answer “Coming” in my sleep, and take no more notice about it.’” Thus may the ministry accomplish nothing because the habitual hearer remains in a deep sleep, out of which the Spirit of God alone can awaken him. When the secret influence from heaven ceases to speak to the heart, the best speaking to the ear avails little. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
As an adamant harder than flint have I made thy forehead.
(Zechariah 7:12):--A great and good man who served and suffered for Christ in North Africa seventeen centuries ago won for himself a noble name by which he is still known, Origen the Adamantine. There isn’t a boy nor, in her own quiet way, a girl who does not feel some glow of heart or flush of face at the magic of this name, “the Unsubduable,” “the Invincible.” But he was not the first who bore the name. It was given long before by God Himself to His captive prophet in Babylon, whose forehead, as he faced the people, whose hearts were cold and hard as stones, might well be firm as adamant, since, in his very name, Ezekiel, he carried the great power of God. Now, what is adamant? Look at a lady’s finger ring, and find among the precious stones set in its golden circle one that is quite clear and lustrous, and that throws off from every facet whatever rays of light are falling upon it. We call this sparkling gem, as you know, a diamond. But that is just another form of the word adamant, which we owe to the old Greeks, who naturally called the precious stone which could not be broken, adamas or “the unsubduable.”
1. The diamond now flashing on your mother’s finger was not always the hardest of stones. It was once a bit of soft, vegetable matter. For the diamond is not really different from the coal which makes our winter fires, and which, long, long ages ago, was a thick, steaming forest. Hence it is quite true that “the sunbeams are driving our railway trains.” And the exiles in Babylon, who had grown so adamantine in evil that the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God made no more impression on their hearts than your penknife on the angles of a diamond, were once boys and girls playing in the streets of Jerusalem, singing the songs of Zion, and dreaming their day dreams of ministering to the Lord like Samuel, or fighting with Goliaths like David, or leading the dance of triumph like Miriam. This terrible process of heart petrifying, or turning to stone, comes about by the action of the wise and good, though solemn and awful, law of habit. “The oftener, the easier.” How woeful to reach at last the state when, as regards all that is highest and best, one is “past feeling,” as though the conscience had been burned with a hot iron, or the heart made as hard as an adamant stone! From which may the good Lord deliver us!
2. We may find a promise of better things even in Zechariah’s awful image of disobedience. The exquisite diamonds, or carbon crystals, are combustible, and, if subjected to a sufficient degree of heat, will pass off in carbonic acid gas. Fine ladies need not be so proud of their diamonds, since they may all be dissipated by fire; and poorer folks need not so greatly covet their possession, since they are breathing out diamond essence with every exhalation! And if we were so foolishly greedy as to want our diamond breaths back again, they would poison us. However this may be, it is certain that hearts as hard as an adamant stone are every day being softened, melted, transformed, by the fire of God’s holy love, which saves the sinner by consuming his sins.
3. But “the broken heart,” though it may seem strange to say so, is the stoutest and bravest of hearts. The true hero has always a tender conscience. He who fears God has no other fear. If Christ is your Master, and you are learning in His school, you may well appropriate the sturdy words over the gate of Marischal College, Aberdeen: “They say: what say they? let them say.” God has His diamonds as well as the devil. Against the whole “House of Disobedience” stood up the son of Buzi, the prophet of the exile, in the strength of God. If the people were hard as flint in their own evil ways, he was firm as the adamant, which is harder than flint in the service of God. They did well to call Origen, the Adamantine, the Invincible, for when, at the age of sixteen, his father was thrown into prison for his confession of Christ, he wanted to go and suffer with him; and when it was shown him that this was not his duty, he wrote to his father not to falter in his faith for their sakes, for he would undertake the support of his mother and his six younger brothers. And nobly did he fulfil his promise, selling his books, working early and late as a teacher in Alexandria, and inspiring his pupils with such devotion that they called his college “a school for martyrs.” (A. N. Mackray, M. A.)
Weakness made strong
What is more unstable than water, yet, when frozen, what is more immovable? It becomes hard as a rock when God touches it. What He does in nature tie also does in grace. Peter was weak as water, but the Lord changed his nature as well as his name, and “Simon, son of Jonas,” became “Peter, son of Jehovah.” The Lord did the same for Ezekiel. “Behold, I have made thy face strong against their faces, and thy forehead strong against their foreheads. As an adamant harder than flint have I made thy forehead: fear them not, neither be dismayed at their looks, though they be a rebellious house” (Ezekiel 3:9). The world’s hardening is death: God’s hardening is strength; the yielding became unyielding, and those rippled with every breath became immovable. Yes, it is wonderful what God can enable us to bear! (Footsteps of Truth.)
Hardened for endurance
Loose-braced, easy souls, that lie open to all the pleasurable influences of ordinary life, are no more fit for God’s weapons than a reed for a lance, or a bit of flexible lead for a spear point. The wood must be tough and compact, the metal hard and close-grained, out of which God makes His shafts. The brand that is to guide men through the darkness to their Father’s home must glow with a pallor of consuming flame that purges its whole substance into light. (A. Maclaren.)
All My words . . . receive in thine heart.
The heart the treasury of truth
What is in the head may soon be lost, but what is in the heart abides. Books locked up in the closet are safe, and truths laid up in the heart are secure (James 1:21). They must first put out of their hearts filthiness, malice, wrath, whatever had possession of the heart, and kept out the Word, and open their hearts to entertain the Word. The heart is the ground this seed will grow in. David knew this, and therefore hid the Word of God in his heart (Psalms 119:11): and why there? “that I might not sin against thee.” This corn will not let the weeds grow: when the Word is in the heart, it keeps under all corruptions, it makes them languish and come to nothing. (W. Greenhill, M. A.)
Then the Spirit took me up.
The light of God reconciles the disorders of life
In the light of God the presence of moral disorder can be reconciled with His superintending goodness and mercy. And as we are lifted up in spirit into that light we see that there is an explanation of these terrible perplexities, a solution of these baffling problems, an unfolding of an occult and inscrutable plan. Birks, in his Four Prophetic Empires, says, “The storms which rocked the cradle of Rome, and nursed it into greatness--the wars of Carthage, the victories of Hannibal, the proud triumphs of Scipio and Paulus, of Marius and Sylla, of Pompey and Caesar--the fall of Greece, and Syria, and Egypt, of Spain, and Gaul, and Britain, with all the fierce conculsions of intestine strife, and the imperial line of Caesar--were all planned out and clearly foreseen in the counsels of the Most High. Where a worldly mind sees nothing but a wild sea of human passions, or the dark workings of subtle policy and ambition, God’s Word reveals a mightier presence standing in the midst of those proud statesmen and warriors, though they know Him not. A flood of heaven’s light streams down upon the darkest page of Roman ambition and crime. Amid those gloomy scenes of triumphant injustice, foul idolatry or superstitious pride, almighty power was there to control, onmiscient wisdom to foresee and ordain, and love and holiness were overruling the mighty drama of strife and violence, to accomplish their own hidden counsel of grace and redemption to a fallen world.” (A. W. Welch.)
So the Spirit lifted me up.
In the uplifted life we are fitted to do the Lord’s work
Ezekiel was now strengthened to do a very difficult work. He was to go and speak to a people who had no sympathy with him,--who would not listen to him, as the old classic prophetess Cassandra was doomed forever to speak the truth and never to be believed. If he had been commissioned to break up new ground amongst people whose language he did not understand, he would have deserved some pity. But the actual case was worse than such a hypothetical one. Jeremiah had preached in Jerusalem for thirty-five years without success, and now Ezekiel was assured that his own prophesying in Babylon would fail of its immediate purpose. To expect defeat is one of the surest ways of incurring it. On the contrary, to have an unswerving confidence in the prosperous issue of any cause is most likely to ensure it. To have, as the only visible result of your efforts, your words flung back in your face, like shot rebounding from the adamant, must result in depressing your energies and paralysing your power. Ezekiel is now called to this terrible kind of service; and if he is not to falter and slacken in the strenuousness of his effort, he must have special preparation for it. The Spirit lifts him up, and then the hand of the Lord is strong upon him; and thus his natural weakness and timidity are reinforced. A Mr. Davis has written of the beneficial effects of high altitudes in certain kinds of diseases, more particularly in pulmonary troubles, and has summarised those advantages as, “dryness of air and comparative freedom from microorganisms and atmospheric dust; profusion of sunlight; lowness of temperature, the heat of the sun being easily borne, while the violet rays of the spectrum act chemically on the blood, increasing the haemoglobin; diminished barometric pressure, facilitating chemical action in the blood and tissues, and favouring vaporisation of moist secretions in the lungs, while it aids pulmonary circulation and expansion; and the general stimulus of high levels, producing exhilaration and an increase of nutrition.” Who would wish to live on low levels after reading that! Those who live in any low-lying places, such as the poor Swiss of the Valals, are languid and enfeebled. They can never be robust while they breathe the damp air, the miasma, the foggy, misty atmosphere. There are correspondences in the spiritual sphere to these literal facts. When Christians dwell in the marshy, malarial lowlands of doubt and unbelief, selfishness and worldliness, they are unequal to holy enterprise. To serve the Lord requires strength and vigour, and these qualities they lack. We can also see that by means of this lifting up Ezekiel was brought into sympathy with men. “Then I came to them of the captivity at Tel-abib, that dwelt by the river of Chebar, and I sat where they sat, and remained there astonished among them seven days.” Many have complained of such a method of expressing interest, and ridiculed it as strange friendship. But the action is full of true, deep sympathy. Job “sat down among the ashes,” a loathsome sufferer. Yet his friends sat with him, sharing in silence his sorrow and humiliation. Similarly Ezekiel does not appear to have spoken. Silence is often golden. Words would sometimes only bewilder or irritate or wound. It is in the uplifted life that we learn how to come near to people in their misery and degradation,--how to join ourselves in the truest sympathy with the masses in their sad weariness, their pain-stricken anxiety, their tempted, struggling, sinning condition. Observe that by being lifted up Ezekiel was brought into sympathy with God. “So the Spirit lifted me up, and took me away, and I went in bitterness, in the heat of my spirit.” As you read these words you at first think they denote the very reverse of an advance towards the mind of God. What can bitterness of spirit signify? what but a spirit of rebellion against the will of God? But that is not the meaning. The prophet was now brought into deeper sympathy with the Divine will. He was, like Jeremiah, “filled with the indignation of the Lord.” In Bible parlance, the Lord was angry with the people, and so now was he. The roll which was spread before him was written with “lamentations and mourning and woe.” He was bidden to eat it. Surely a very bitter portion for him! But he says, “It was in my mouth as honey for sweetness” (chap. 3, verse 3). Why did the bitter become sweet? Because he was already in perfect accord with the will of God. The will of God should, we know, be the law of a Christian’s life. Henry Martyn remarked just before he reached Madras, “I am going upon a work exactly according to the mind of Christ.” At the height of 200 feet above the earth, to the listener on tower or crag, the varying sounds from below, harmonies and discords alike, are blent into one musical note--F natural--pure, sweet, distinct. So when we are lifted up to the Mount of the Lord the dissonant, discordant, jarring notes of our self-will are brought into unison with the will of God; our imperfect, inharmonious natures are reduced into full and complete accord with the Divine purpose. (A. W. Welch.)
I have made thee a watchman.
The Christian watchman
I. The office of the christian watchman is to warn his people of the danger to which, according to the word of God, all men are naturally exposed. From the “specular mount” on which the Lord hath placed him, he looks abroad upon the mighty plain where the busy generations of the world are engaged in a thousand different forms of labour, and pursuing a thousand different objects of delight, all alike undisturbed by the thought of the invasion of wrath which, ere long, is to “lay the land desolate, and to destroy the sinners out of it.” Yet he can discern what they do not,--the ministers of vengeance ambushed in the very midst of them, and ready at a word to spring on their defenceless victims. And, perceiving all this, shall he keep silence? I am aware that the principle of ministerial duty which I have now stated has been objected to on various grounds. We are often told, for example, that to dwell much on such frightful and uncomfortable topics is in bad taste. But this is no question of taste; it is a matter of life or death,--of life or death eternal. Away, then, with such puerilities. Again, we are told that such a mode of dealing with sinners is ineffective,--that the true way in which men are generally brought to Christianity is through its soft and winning attractions, and that few comparatively are frightened into it by the force of threatenings and terror. But this maxim, we apprehend, is contradicted by experience. Conviction ordinarily precedes conversion. But it is a case that need not be thus argued to and fro; for hear what Jehovah hath denounced against those who, speaking in His name, keep back the message of His wrath against the sinner:--“Mine hand shall be upon the prophets that see vanity,” etc.
II. The christian minister’s object should be not merely to awaken sinners to a sense of peril, but to excite them to flee for refuge from that peril. Now, this defenced and consecrated city--the New Jerusalem, the Church of the Living God, has been erected as a city of refuge to the guilty. To it, therefore, the watchman of souls must point the sinner whom he has awakened with the alarm of danger, and, while he shouts, “Flee from the wrath to come,” must add, “Turn ye to the stronghold, ye prisoners of hope.” He must hold it forth as the all-sufficient refuge “founded upon a rock,” so that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The great object, then, of the faithful minister in pointing out to men the way of salvation, is, first, To exhibit Christ as the source and foundation of the sinner’s hope, and then, secondly, To do what he may to lead men into this faith and this reliance, by displaying God’s testimony in the Gospel as it is in truth,--“a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation.” (J. B. Patterson, M. A.)
I. His requisite character and qualifications.
1. He must be a man of good repute. A man of loose habits, a disorderly, quarrelsome, dissolute, idle, dishonest man, is the most unlikely person in the world to be a watchman: hence wise men always appoint to that office persons of steady, honest, and industrious habits. And such must be the Lord’s watchman.
2. He must produce proofs of his past fidelity and good management.
3. He should have discernment, ingenuity, and courage.
4. A watchman should be healthy and strong, able to bear exposure and fatigue; a soft and delicate person is a most unlikely subject to be a watchman.
5. He must be properly appointed.
6. He must have a proper dress and light. And by these marks ought the Lord’s watchman to be identified: he should be clothed with humility as with a garment, and adorned with the graces of the Holy Spirit. He should also have much Divine light. He must walk and commune with, and imitate Christ.
II. The watchman’s office.
1. One part of his duty is to tell the hour. Time flies! your life is a shadow! you spend your years as a tale that is told! your days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle! your life is a dream! your time as a stream glides swiftly away! every beating pulse you tell leaves but the number less! your life is vanity! you are but dust--what is your life? it is but a vapour.
2. Another part of the duty of a watchman is to protect the persons and property of the inhabitants from villains, accidents, and offences. In like manner ought the Church to be protected by the Lord’s watchmen. All that are sick, poor, destitute, or afflicted, and those who are but young disciples and weak in their faith, they ought to make the objects of their peculiar attention.
3. It is another part of a watchman’s duty to give an alarm when any doors are left open, or places unprotected, or when any danger is near. The spiritual watchman must do likewise.
4. The watchman has to give an account to the governors or magistrates of anything important that has occurred, and of the present state of the city. And the Lord’s watchman has to lay before Him any conversions, improvements, declensions, goods or evils, that have transpired in the Church, and to present them before the Throne of Grace. (B. Bailey.)
The office and duty of a conscientious pastor
I. God, in unsearchable wisdom, and grace Divine, as well for our necessity as His own glory, appointed Two distinct orders of men, who might continually attend upon sacred things: under the Mosaic law, these were the Priest and the Prophet. The former was necessary on account of His ineffable greatness, for the honour of His majesty, and our deep misery. With regard to the other, that of the prophetic office, not only did our guilt require the atoning priest, but our natural darkness, our native ignorance of God and Divine mysteries, called aloud for a teacher sent from God. There appears to be this difference between the priest and the prophet under the Mosaic law: the former was a minister of state, admitted to the presence of the King; one who ministered continually before Him at His holy altar; the other, as an extraordinary ambassador, who not only represented the Divine person of Messiah the Prince, but was charged with special embassies to Israel, and the neighbouring kingdoms. This is most obviously illustrated in Moses, Ezekiel, Daniel, and all the eminent prophets. The office of the prophet, therefore, was to reveal future and interesting events to mankind; to bless and pray for the people. These two characters of such dignity and respectability are united in Jesus, who is a Priest upon His throne, and that Prophet before whom all the prophets are but as twilight stars to the meridian sun. From the triumphant death and glorious resurrection of our Divine Redeemer, we are to look for a new order of men, and a new mode of instruction.
II. The connection between the Jewish prophet and the Gospel minister.
1. The principal and most essential qualification of a prophet was, undisguised holiness, and sublime piety. There cannot be a greater solecism in the moral world than an immoral teacher: one whose office it is to investigate the concerns of eternity, to show the importance of regeneration, to press upon others the necessity of a new birth, while he himself is a stranger to the work of the Spirit upon his own heart. Piety in a man’s own breast makes him faithful; he bids fairest for success whose heart is holy; he watches as one that must give an account.
2. The mind of the prophet must be in a proper disposition and frame to receive the Divine afflatus or prophetic spirit; that is, say the Jewish doctors, it must not be oppressed with grief, or clouded with passions of any kind. This is a most necessary quality in a Gospel minister. His mind should be free from the thorny cares of time, and undisturbed with swelling passions. A dogmatical spirit, and magisterial airs, in befit a disciple, a minister of the meek and lowly Redeemer.
3. A true prophet was made and called to his office by God Himself.
III. What the true prophet, the servant of jesus christ, hath to watch over.
1. The doctrines of the Gospel. These are sometimes expressed by the truth (3 John 1:8); sometimes by the faith (Jude 1:3).
2. Our interest is in the universal Church of Christ: but, in a peculiar manner, we must watch over that flock with which we stand connected in a pastoral relation (Acts 20:28).
3. We ought to keep a jealous eye over our own hearts. Ministers of the Gospel must not forget that they are deeply engaged in the Christian warfare; and that Satan will employ every engine to storm them. Ministers have their peculiar infirmities, as well as private Christians. ‘Tis hard to keep the helm up against so many cross winds as we meet with on this sea of fire and glass.
1. The importance of a Gospel ministry, and the charge of souls.
2. What an honourable post Gospel ministers fill. They approach the presence of the Almighty King, and receive from the Lord what they deliver unto His people.
3. From the subject, learn the infinite love of God to mankind. (J. Johnston.)
“When a sentinel is set upon the watch, he must not come off without the commander’s leave, and till he is discharged by authority. God hath set us in a watch, and we must not leave our ground till we have done all that is enjoined upon us, and receive a fair discharge.” The instance of the sentinel in Pompeii, whose skeleton was found erect at the city gate, when all but he had fled, need not be repeated in words; but it should be copied by each one of us in his life. If the earth should reel, it is ours to keep our place. If set to preach the Gospel, let us maintain the truth, though philosophy should thin the number of our comrades till we remain alone. Imagine what the universe would be if the stars forsook their marches, and the sun forbore to shine; yet this would only be among inanimate objects an imitation of the conduct of men who quit their posts, and leave their work undone. This is the spirit out of which fiends are made: first neglect, then omission, then treachery and rebellion. A sentinel must not leave his post even to gather pearls or diamonds; nor must we forsake our duty in order to acquire the highest honours. It matters nothing how well we have done other things if we neglect the thing. God bids us do this, and if we fail it will be no excuse to be able to say--we have done that. If the watcher forsakes his post it will not avail that he climbed a mountain, or swam a river: he was not where he was ordered to be. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The watchman’s duties
Often on the ocean I have gone to the prow of the vessel and looked out into the darkness of the night. I have found the watchman not one moment from his post, his eye gazing far over the sea, where he might discern at the greatest distance and at the earliest moment any cause of possible danger. The lives of the crew and passengers were in his hands. The mist might come down heavily, the wind might blow furiously, the storm rage incessantly; but still on and ever the watchman looks out in the one direction. The whales may sport in multitudes around the vessel, the whole sea behind him be in a phosphorescent glow. His own great object is not to care for these things, but to look ahead! So you are watchmen. You are on the ship. The vessel may be running towards shore; there may be breakers ahead. You are to sound the alarm. (Bishop Simpson.)
Hear the word at My mouth.
The message from the Lord’s mouth
Christ’s battles are not such as require strength of muscle and bone, nor do they need great mental capacity. Even the appointed watchman is set only to warn the people: he has not to charm them with eloquence, nor to electrify them with novelties of oratory: he is simply to warn them, and the plainest language may suffice for that.
I. If we would be found really useful and serviceable for our Lord and Master, the ear is to be disciplined. “Hear the word at My mouth.” What does this mean?
1. I take it, first, that if we wish to be useful our ear must be disciplined to hear only God’s word. Believe Him, for He cannot lie. We come to tell you of what we ourselves have received upon Divine authority, and we claim that you do receive our testimony, not because it is ours, but because it is supported by Divine authority, and is in fact the echo of the Divine word. Only by this mode of utterance can we hope to succeed. On any other footing we court failure and deserve it.
2. Secondly, if we would have our ear educated, it must be not only to receive the word as of Divine authority, but to know what God’s word is. Let us study the Bible with diligence. Go to that fountain of truth, I pray you, and never be satisfied with a second-hand version of it. Go you to the fountain head and drink there or ever the streams have been mudded by human blundering.
3. The great thing, I believe, with a successful winner of souls is to hear God’s truth from God’s own mouth. Do you want to know Christ’s way of making men useful? Turn to Mark 3:13-15. Do you see the order? He calls them to Him,--you must not dream of winning souls till you first come to Christ yourself. Next we read, “That they might be with Him,”--you cannot go and teach Christ, or bring others to Him, unless you have first been with Him. Communion with Jesus is training for service. After the fellowship comes the work--“That He might send them forth to preach, and to have power.”
4. To have our ear well tutored we must feel the force of the truth that we deliver. Sin,--are you going to talk about the evil of it? Do you know the evil of it for yourself? Get back to the place of repentance where you once wet the earth with your tears, and talk to children or grown-up people about sin in that spirit. Pardon,--are you going to speak about that? Do you know the sweetness of it? Go to the place where first you saw the flowing of the ever-precious blood, and feel again your load of guilt removed, and you will speak of it most sweetly. The power of the Holy Spirit,--are you going to speak about that? Have you felt His quickening, enlightening, comforting, and sanctifying influence?
II. The tongue is to be educated. That is indeed the aim of the discipline of the ear. And to what end is the tongue educated?
1. To be able to deliver an unpleasant message. You and I cannot be useful if we want to be sweet as honey in the mouths of men. God will never bless us if we wish to please men, that they may think well of us. Are you willing to tell them what will break your own heart in the telling and break theirs in the hearing? If not, you are not fit to serve the Lord.
2. Next, you want your tongue tutored to speak the truth as having yourself heard it. The man should be full of emotion, not moved by anger, but by a sacred passion which arouses him and makes the people feel that he is in awful earnest, carried out of himself, not delivering set phrases and words from his mouth outwards, but speaking from his inmost heart. Now, if we were to meet with our Lord Jesus Himself, and were then to speak of Him in the state of mind in which His presence left us, what a style of speech that would be.
3. The tongue needs to be trained in the case of each one of us to deliver the message as from God. You may not all be called to the work of prophesying as ministers are, but you are all called by some means to warn men of the wrath to come and lead them to Christ, and I want you to feel that God is at the back of you when you warn sinners. God will own His truth, therefore never be ashamed of it.
III. I finish by endeavouring to practise the lesson of the text. I desire to speak to those who are unconverted, and to speak as if I had just come from an interview with my Lord and Master, as I trust I have. I have to say to you now present, that whatever may be your natural excellence of character, and whatever the religiousness of your training, yet you must all of you be born again. The Master would lay a strong tender emphasis upon the “must.” “Ye must be born again.” Jesus would not demand of us more than is absolutely necessary, nor say a syllable that would tend to shut a soul out of heaven. If He says, “Ye must,” why then we must. I want you to own that necessity. Next I desire to introduce you to Jesus sitting at the well with the woman of Samaria. You can see the smile upon His countenance as He instructs her. I want you now to hear Him say these words: “God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.” You must have a spiritual mind and a spiritual nature through being born again: and then you must worship God in a spiritual way, for mere outward religion is nothing in His sight. Oh, ask that the Spirit of God would teach you how to worship in spirit and in truth. Now listen to my Master again. “Ye search the Scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of Me. And ye will not come to Me, that ye might have life.” Do you think you will get salvation by Bible reading? Alas, you are in error. You must go further than that; you must go to Christ Jesus Himself. Listen to my Master once again: “If ye believe not that I am He, ye shall die in your sins.” I know you will say that I speak hard things. Perhaps I do, but not with a hard heart. Now, my Lord is always tender, never man spake like this man, and never man wept as He did when He had a hard thing to say; hear ye then His declaration, “Except ye believe that I am He, ye shall die in your sins.” The last thing that was ever seen of my Lord and Master upon earth was this. “Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature.” They stood with their ears and eves open to know how He would have them put the Gospel, and He said, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; he that believeth not shall be damned.” (C. H. Spurgeon.)
His blood will I require at thine hand.
Public sentiment in New York has been aroused against a poor brakeman on the New York Central railroad because he failed to give the danger signal to the St. Louis express. He was sent with a red lantern to wave down the approaching train, but, instead of doing so, he went into a depot and sat down by the fire. As the express thundered by he asked, “What’s that?” and, when told, he disappeared in the darkness and has not yet been found by the police. The express dashed into the train on the track and killed twelve persons. Everybody feels that such neglect was criminal, and yet how about us who believe that our friends are going headlong to ruin and we have not warned them of their danger?
Arise, go forth into the plain, and I will there talk with thee.
I. The duty enjoined--“Arise, and go forth into the plain.” Premise two things--
1. The place is indifferent. It matters not whether it be a private room, or the open field. The thing required is to be alone.
2. It is not a state of absolute retirement that God enjoins, Man was made for society, as well as solitude: and so is the Christian. But what our subject demands is, comparative and occasional secession for moral and spiritual purposes. Says He not this by express commands? “Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still. Enter into thy closet; and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret, and thy Father which is in secret shall reward thee openly.” And says He not this by example? Daniel retired three times a day. Of our Saviour, whose life has the force of a law, it is said: “In the morning, rising up a great while before day, He went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed. Says e not this by he institution of the Sabbath? The return of every Saturday evening cries, “Tomorrow is the rest of the holy Sabbath unto the Lord.” “Go forth into the plain, and there will I talk with thee.” And says He not this by the dispensations of His providence? Affliction often at once disinclines us to social circles, and disqualifies us for them. Sickness separates a man from the crowd, and confines him on the bed of languishing, there to ask, “Where is God my Maker, who giveth songs in the night?” Says He not this by the influence of His grace? This agency always produces in its subjects certain sentiments and dispositions, which urge them to retirement. I will mention four of these.
1. The first is a devotional temper. Whoever delights in prayer will delight in retirement; because it is so favourable to the frequency and freedom of the exercise.
2. The second is a desire to rise above the world. How often does the Christian lament that his conversation is so little in heaven, and that he is so much governed, by things that are seen and temporal! But where is the world conquered? In a crowd? No: but--alone.
3. The third is a wish to obtain self-knowledge. It is only alone that he can examine his state; that he can explore his defects; and set a watch against future temptation.
4. The fourth is love to God. When we are supremely attached to a person, his presence is all we want; how desirable then to meet him alone, where he seems wholly ours, and we can yield and receive undivided attention!
II. The privilege promised--“And I will there talk with thee.”
1. The condescension of the Speaker. It is the Creator talking with the creature. Annexed to our meanness are our unworthiness, and our guilt. Here is, therefore, the condescension not only of goodness, but of mercy and grace.
2. Observe the happiness of the believer. By what scale can we judge of blessedness so rightly as the degree of nearness to God, the supreme good, the fountain of life? In His presence there is fulness of joy, and at His right hand there are pleasures for evermore. How blessed, then, is the man whom God chooses, and causes to approach unto Him now!
3. What is the subject of communication? It is variously expressed in the Scripture. It is called, His secret, and His covenant: “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him, and He will show them His covenant.” It is called judgment, and His way: “The meek will He guide in judgment, and the meek will He teach His way. It is peace: “He will speak peace unto His people.” It regards everything that is important to their welfare, or interesting to their feelings and hopes.
4. What is the mode of address? He does not talk with us in a preternatural manner, as he did sometimes of old with His people. But He opens our eyes to see wondrous things out of His law. He leads us into all truth. He applies the doctrines and promises of His word by His Spirit; and, by enabling us to realise our own interest in them, He says to our souls, I am thy salvation.
5. What is the evidence of the fact? How shall we know that He does talk with us? Remember the two disciples going to Emmaus.
Determine the Divine converse with you in the same way. Judge of it by its influences and effects.
1. It will produce a deep and solemn sense of our vanity and vileness.
2. It will draw forth unquenchable desires after additional indulgence.
3. It will produce likeness. “He that walketh with wise men shall be wise.” (W. Jay.)
Seasons of devout solitude
I. Seasons of devout solitude are necessary in order to free us from the corrupting influence of society.
1. Society has a tendency to stir and strengthen the impulses of our animal nature.
2. Society has a tendency to produce habits of superficial thought. The spicy anecdote, the volatile language, the feathery and the flippant--these are the popular wares.
3. Society has a tendency to destroy the sense of individual responsibleness.
4. Society has a tendency to promote a forgetfulness of God. The lamp of piety will soon flicker and expire in the gusts of social influences, unless we retire to devout solitude for fresh oil to feed its waning fires.
II. Seasons of devout solitude are necessary in order personally to appropriate the good there is in society. The conversations of the noblest circles, the most renovating principles of the most Christ-like discourses, will all prove worse than useless if their good effect is allowed to terminate with their first impressions. First impressions, of a holy kind, if they are not cultured by devout reflection, will not only pass away as the early dew goes off in the sun, but will carry off with them something of the freshness and the sensibility of the heart--something that will render the spirit less susceptible to other good impressions. In devout solitude, and nowhere else, can the faculty of discrimination rightly do its work. Here, the mind has its “senses exercised to discern good and evil.” The two opposite elements, alas! are so mixed together here, so compounded, that a rigid and searching discrimination is required to separate the chaff from the wheat--the dross from the gold. In the presence of God, evil and good dissolve their connection, and appear in their own distinct essences. The night is divided from the day. Now without this discrimination there can be no true appropriation. In devout solitude, therefore, I can turn the universe to my service; aye, even make enemies serve my purpose.
III. Seasons of devout solitude are necessary in order to qualify us to benefit society. Nature and the Bible teach that our bounden duty is to “serve our generation”--to endeavour to improve the condition of the race. Three things seem indispensable, and these are dependent upon devout solitude.
1. Self-formed conviction of Gospel truth. Alone with God you can search the Gospel to its foundation, and feel the congruity of its doctrines with your reason, its claims with your conscience, its provisions with your wants.
2. Unconquerable love for Gospel truth. The man only who loves truth more than popularity, fortune, or even life, can so use it as really and lastingly to benefit mankind. In devout solitude you can cultivate this invincible attachment to truth, and be made to feel with Paul, who said--“I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ.”
3. A living expression of Gospel truth. We must be “living epistles.” Our conduct must confirm and illumine the doctrines which our lips declare. It is said of Moses “that the skin of his face shone while he talked with God.” But in seasons of devout solitude, our whole nature may grow luminous, and every phase of our character coruscate with “the deep things of the spirit.” (Homilist.)
Solitude, not loneliness
God speaks as surely in the city as in the desert. By unexpected events, by labour and strife, by the various fortunes of vice, and the amazing struggles of virtue, God speaks to men with distinctness and solemnity. The point is that busy men may hear God in solitude, and solitary men may hear Him in the city. Change of mere position may have moral advantages.
I. The speciality of God’s appointments. He appoints places, times, methods, He appoints, in this case, the plain. “Where two or three are gathered together,” etc.; “Wheresoever My name is recorded,” etc. Where the appointment is special, the obedience should be instantaneous, cordial, punctual.
II. The personality of God’s communications. “I will talk with thee.” We should know more of God if we held closer intercourse with Him. We may go to God directly. Every devout meditation brings us into the Divine presence. Expect this; believe it; realise it. In the sanctuary we are not hearing the voice of man, but of God. In nature we hear the Divine voice. God talks with man in the garden in the cool of the day.
III. The familiarity of God’s condescension. “I will talk with thee.” It is a friend’s appointment. It is not, “I will lighten and thunder,” or, “I will overpower thee with My strength,” but, “I will talk with thee,” as a father might talk to his only son. Though the prophet was at first thrown down, yet the Spirit entered into him, and set him upon his feet. Application--
1. God has ever something to say to man. Must have--
(1) as a Ruler;
(2) as a Father. His word is ever new.
2. In seeking solitude, man should seek God. Solitude without God leads to madness. Solitude with God leads to strength and peace. Undevout solitude is the wilderness where the devil wins his battles.
3. Man himself should often propose to commune with God, In this case God proposed; in other cases man may “seek the Lord.” Communion with God shows--
(1) the capacity of our spiritual nature;
(2) the infinite superiority of the spiritual as compared with the material.
When Moses talked with God, his face shone; when we commune with Him, our life will be full of brightness. Divine fellowship may be kept silent, but it cannot be kept secret. Jesus Christ Himself went away from men to commune with God. If the Master required solitude, can the servant safely do without it? (J. Parker D. D.)
Quiet communion with God
If asked to mention the most prominent characteristic of the present day, I should point the requirer without hesitation to the immense speed at which everything is going, to the never: ceasing and ever-increasing activity of men; to the multiplied and still multiplying engagements which occupy all the day; to the vast amount of work done in the conduct of the affairs of the world. As a direct consequence of this, those things in these busy days of ours, which can be looked at and apprehended by a swift glance of the ever-active eye, and grasped and measured and weighed by a quick application of the ever-ready hand, occupy, in the case of the vast majority of men, the mind as well as the time, to the exclusion of those things which are not seen but which are quite as real and important. In the bustle and noise of the activities of every day, the whisperings of the Divine voice, ever appealing to our hearts, are unheard and unheeded, even as would be the strains of the songbird amid the din and clash of armed men in mortal combat. In the swift race for worldly prosperity or distinction or honour, the messages of Divine love, straight from the Father’s heart to ours, fall and pass away without leaving any impression, even as the silvery moonbeams leave no impress upon the granite rock. It is, then, for our souls’ health and strength that God frequently uses with us rather stringent measures, and, by His dealings with us, forces us to think of what is not seen, both within us and beyond us. Thus we now and again hear the Divine mandate: “Arise, go forth into the plain, and I will there talk with thee.” Everything whose function is activity or growth demands, as a necessity for its healthy being, recurring periods of rest and seclusion. This principle pervades external nature. After the earth has been glowing with the beauties of summer and the richness of autumn; after the trees have been robed with their garment of green, and the flowers have put forth their many-hued blossoms, and basked in all their brilliance under the warm rays of the genial sun, the blossoms begin to wither and fade, and the leaves to fall, and the sap to return slowly downward to the root or the bulb underground, there in darkness, and seclusion, and quiet, to gain fresh strength for another recurring period of activity, and growth, and beauty. If you have an eye strained or weary or sore by much writing, or by protracted reading, or by ceaseless watching, you give it, when you can, rest and seclusion, that its delicate mechanism may get readjusted and serve you well for the time to come. If your brain has become hot and tired and next to useless for the moment by much study or by intense application at the desk or over a book, you instinctively incline to give it that which it naturally and imperatively demands--the cessation of the tax upon its mental powers. If your man of business, with perhaps vast responsibilities resting upon him, suddenly awakens to the fact that he has, in regard both to body and to mind, considerably overdone it, and feels jaded and wearied, and is only too conscious of the swift-coming retribution in the form of a break down, both bodily and mental, which so often follows such a sin committed against both body and mind, he will, the first moment that he possibly can, go forth from the bustle and excitement and hurry and conflict of the mart or the exchange to the plain--to the rest and solitude of the country where God’s own hills are swept by the pure and invigorating air of heaven, or to the seashore, where the untainted breezes from the deep may be his, and thus be fitted for further activity and usefulness in life. The illustrations which I have afforded speak to us of an all-pervading, a God-implanted principle in nature and in man; that even darkness and solitude are sometimes absolutely necessary for fit preparation for true and good work; and that, carrying the principle to its highest application, occasional retirement from the bustle and heady contest of life and restful meditation are requisite ere we can distinctly hear God’s voice, and have the heart and the life attuned to the Divine message, and thus be fully fitted to do God’s will. We must from time to time arise and go forth into the plain, and there our Father shall talk with us. You need not say that God could have talked to Ezekiel quite as well, and with as much effect, amid the bustle and turmoil of the everyday life in which he was as in the quiet retirement of the plain. If He could have done so He unquestionably would have done so. He never, in any of His dealings, either in nature or with man, makes use of superfluous means to any end. Ezekiel was surrounded and pestered by sinful, selfish, unbelieving men, to whom he was heaven’s appointed minister; and it was not, certainly in the sight or in the presence of such, or in their noisy company, that he could distinctly hear the Divine message which was to guide him in his ministrations to them. It stands to reason he had to be secluded from all such that he might receive ever-refreshing manifestations of the Divine glory to inspirit him for his trying work--seclusion and retirement being especially needed by those who have to discharge the duties of a commission from God to men. Thus, and thus only, are they set by the Spirit upon their feet. It is when apart from the bustling and rushing scenes of everyday life, and when separate from the noise and the dash and the heady excitement of society, that His tenderest messages come to the heart, and the most encouraging tones of His voice fall upon the ear; His highest, most strengthening, most comforting, most lasting communications, come to us when we are alone with Him. (W. M. Arthur, M. A.)
The doctrine of the desert
I. The desert, or solitude, is a necessary means of grace. The true Israel of God now, as ever, confess that they are “strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” And all who say not this “make it manifest that they are ‘not’ seeking after a country of their own”--a better country, that is a heavenly. Life must be a wilderness, a desert, or Canaan when we reach it won’t be heaven. But turn now upon this doctrine the light of individual experiences recorded in God’s Word for our instruction and encouragement. When was it that Jacob drew nearest to God and realised that God had drawn nearest to him? First of all when, a fugitive by reason of sin, he pillowed his head upon a stone in the awesome loneliness of Luz. The years roll by, and once again is Jacob “left alone.” The God of Bethel meets him by the Jabbok’s tortuous stream, to change the man this time with the place, to effect a far more radical transformation scene, to transfigure character as well as circumstance. “Jabbok” becomes “Peniel,” it is true; but not before “Jacob” has become “Israel”--i.e., “he who striveth successfully with God.” It was in the wilderness that Moses learnt the sacredness of solitude, and received from Jehovah his stupendous commission. The case of Ezekiel, recorded in this chapter, was, in all essential features, a parallel experience. We come to the New Testament and turn over its pages and find this same doctrine--the doctrine of the desert--illustrated and enforced in many ways. Of the forerunner of Jesus we are told--and the last-mentioned fact, no doubt, had its influence on his spirituality--“And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel.” From the earliest days of childhood the key of nature’s solitudes was hanging at his girdle. But, passing from the servant to the Master, the doctrine of the desert finds its best illustration, highest possible sanction, and strongest emphasis in the precept and example of Christ Jesus. When He wished to draw very near to God, and wanted that God should draw very near to Him, it was His invariable custom to retire to some solitary place.
II. If the desert is essential to our spiritual well-being, it is better that we should seek it than it us. What the enterprising builder has done with open spaces, those solitudes in which God used to speak to our fathers, that money-making engine that was formerly called “man” has done with vacant days, hours, moments, seconds--those solitudes of time in which the godly of the past were wont to hold sweet converse with their God. The number of place-spaces and time-spaces has rapidly decreased, and is still rapidly decreasing. The result is a lamentable falling off all round, an alarming lowering of spiritual temperature from which none is exempt, and of which even the most godly are painfully conscious. These would fain live the life of the saints of long ago, but they find themselves caught in the current of the age, and are powerless to do more than hold their own in this universal craze of competition. But though the opportunities of solitude are fewer, the necessity for solitude remains undiminished. Our religious life must perish if we do not obtain it. Now the question that confronts us here is this, “How does the child of God obtain this needful solitude?” The answer is twofold, and runs thus: “If wise, he will go to it; if foolish, God will send it to him.”
1. The wise child of God has more roads to the desert where he meets with Him than one. The first is that of private devotion--compliance with the mandate of the Master, “enter into thine inner chamber, and having shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret.” The second is the weighing of his thoughts, words, and actions in the sacred scale of God’s Word. A third is the transfusion of “other worldliness” into the concerns of his so-called worldly life.
2. The foolish child of God will not go to the desert, therefore, the Father sends the desert to him. It comes upon the wings of sickness, sorrow, and bereavement, is borne along of trouble and disaster. Its blessing is wrapt up in all the trappings of a curse--so wrapped up that he cannot at first recognise it through his tears. Must God lay us low that He may parley with us? Must He fill our heart with tears ere we will look into His face?
III. Jesus has altered the “go” of the command into a “come” of invitation. Yes, Jesus has peopled all the solitudes of life with His presence, and cries to us from each, “Come unto Me.” He meets us in the Desert of Temptation, and nerves us for the fight with His example. He meets us in the Desert of Uncomprehended Worth, and says to us, “A servant is not greater than his lord.” He meets us in the Desert of Solitary Suffering, and, showing us His cross, makes us forget our own. (P. Morrison.)
We here in England, like the old Greeks and Romans, dwellers in the busy mart of civilised life, have got to regard mere bustle as so integral a part of human life, that we consider a love of solitude a mark of eccentricity, and if we meet anyone who loves to be alone, are afraid that he must needs be going mad: and that with too great solitude comes the danger of too great self-consciousness, and even at last of insanity, none can doubt. But, still, we must remember, on the other hand, that without solitude, without contemplation, without habitual collection and recollection of ourselves from time to time, no great purpose is carried out, and no great work can be done; and that it is the bustle and hurry of our modern life which causes shallow thought, unstable purpose and wasted energy, in too many who would be better and wiser, stronger and happier if they would devote more time to silence and meditation; if they would commune with their own heart and in their chamber, and be still. Even in art and in mechanical science, those who have done great work upon the earth have been men given to solitary meditation. When Brindley, the engineer, had a difficult problem to solve, he used to go to bed, and stay there till he had worked it out. And if this silent labour, this steadfast thought, are required for outward arts and sciences, how much more for the highest of all arts, the deepest of all sciences, that which involves the questions--Who are we? and Where are we? Who is God? and What are we to God, and He to us?--namely, the science of being good,--which deals not with time merely, but with eternity. No retirement, no loneliness, no period of earnest and solemn meditation, can be misspent which helps us towards that goal. (Charles Kingsley.)
They shall put bands upon thee.
Restraints in serving the Lord
I. They are often experienced. Every true life for Christ, at one step or another, verifies the expression of Paul, “Without are fightings, within are fears.”
1. The restraints may be in the servants. They may be ready to spread the Gospel, but are forbidden to enter the door which is apparently opened, or are afflicted with disease and unable to enter, or are prostrated in their energies by some domestic event and unfit to enter.
2. The restraints may be from those for whom the service is required.
(1) They may become violent against the persons who stand up for the rights of God.
(2) Or the people may be rebellious in heart.
II. The restraints are under the direction of the Lord. He concerns Himself with every matter relating to His kingdom amongst men. The enforced silence and disablement of the prophet and the “gross” heart of the people are controlled for His righteous and good ends.
1. Traces of His working are perceptible. Restraints are felt teaching His suffering servants to be patient, vigilant for Him, and so qualifing for future action and future reward. “If we suffer with Him we are glorified together.”
2. Hopes of His working may be entertained. When men make void His law, that is a time to ask God to do special work.
III. Restraints may be associated with communion between the Lord and His servants. This fact is brought to pass--
1. By a fresh consciousness of God in His service. He seems to come nearer to them, and they say, “Thou holdest me by my right hand.”
2. By a deepened conviction that He who has led them is the same forever.
3. By the power of the Holy Spirit. He takes the things that are Christ’s and shows them to us. He teaches to profit, and we receive power, love, and a sound mind. The efficacy of all true ministry depends on His energy. (D. G. Watt, M. A.)
God’s servants are told what to expect
1. Christ deals fairly, not fraudulently with His; He tells them at first what they must expect; not gold and silver, but bands and chains “They shall bind thee.” He told Jeremiah, they shall fight against him (Jeremiah 1:19). So Paul no sooner is called to preaching, but he hears of suffering (Acts 9:16). Christ tells all the apostles that they must be afflicted, hated, killed (John 16:2).
2. No excellency exempts a prophet from the malice of men’s tongues and hands.
3. The generality of people are enemies to their own good, and active to their own ruin. The house of Israel, they are against the prophet; they fetter and chain him up, and think they have done well, to make him secure from coming amongst them. And alas, what have they done! thrust away the physician that should cure them; shut out mercy by shutting up a prophet; put out the light. Christ the great Prophet, the people, after all His precious sermons and glorious miracles, cry (Luke 23:18; Luke 23:21).
4. Wicked ones deal severely, cruelly with the prophets when they fall into their hands.
5. Afflictive conditions seldom better men’s spirits. In the case of the Jews here, their wronging of the prophets was the cause of their suffering, and yet all their sufferings did not subdue their spirits, and work them to entertain the truth. The plough breaks the earth in many places, but doth not better it, but leaves it as it was; nothing is put in by the plough.
6. It is no new thing for prophets and ministers to be roughly entreated, and laid by as useless things (1 Peter 5:9). (W. Greenhill, M. A.)
Liberty compatible with bodily restraint
When Bishop Hall was, with nine of his episcopal brethren, committed to the Tower on a charge of high treason, in the early days of the Long Parliament, besides preaching, as he had opportunity, on the Sundays, “he wrote a treatise, under the title: “Free Prisoner; or, The Comfort of the Saint,” joyously contrasting the bondage which he endured with that of lust and sinful desires. Madame Guyon took the same happy view of her imprisonment in the Bastille, in which she reckoned herself one of God’s singing birds, whom He had caged there to have pleasure in her music.
That thou shalt be dumb.
The silent system
After so many years of uninterrupted activity, to be imprisoned, to be silenced, and almost incapable of writing or reading, is mere wearisome than even the pain that often accompanies it; and yet, hence the following instruction may be gathered:--
1. How much activity belongs to some natures, and that this nature is often mistaken for grace.
2. How much we are called to suffer, as well as to do, the will of God. When I have bid one of my children to sit down quietly, and remain silent during my pleasure, I enjoin him a more difficult task than the most active service; and yet I expected it to be done, because I ordered it. How is it that I have not yet learned to sit still, when I am told? (R. Cecil.)
He that heareth let him hear.--
The Word of God not to be altered
“The prescriptions of a physician must not be altered, either by the apothecary or the patient; so we, the preachers, must not alter God’s prescriptions, neither must you, the hearers. We must not shun to declare, nor you to receive, ‘The whole counsel of God.’”.