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13. Man's Extremity, God's Opportunity
For the Lord shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants, when he seeth that their power is gone, and there is none shut up or left. Deuteronomy 32:36
To ungodly men the time of their fall is fatal; there is no rising again for them. They mount higher and higher upon the ladder of riches; but at last they can climb no higher, their feet slide, and all is over. This calamity hasteneth on. "To me belongeth vengeance, and recompense; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste" (verse 35).
But it is not so with three characters of whom we will now speak: they are judged in this world that they may not be condemned hereafter (1 Cor. 11:32). Of each of them it may be said, "Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down" (Ps. 37:24).
I. THE LORD'S OWN CHURCH.
1. A church may be sorely tried, "power gone, none left."
2. But it may then cry to God.
- By persecution the faithful may be cut off (Ps. 107:39).
- By removals, death, poverty, a church may be depleted to a painful extent (Isa. 1:8-9).
- Through the lack of a faithful ministry, there may be no increase; and those who remain may grow feeble and dispirited.
- By general falling off of hearers, members, etc., a church may besorely distressed. Various circumstances may scatter a people, such as internal dissension, pestilent heresy, and lack of spiritual life. Where there is no spiritual food hungry souls find no home (Job 15:23).
- If indeed his people, the covenant stands, and he will judge them.
- If still his servants, the bond holds on his side, and he will repent himself for them.
- His eye is ever upon them, and their eye should be up to him.
3. He will return and revive his own church. He who killed will make alive (verse 39). He pities his children when he sees them broken down under their sorrows.
4. Meanwhile the trial is permitted:
II. THE TRIED BELIEVER.
- To find out his servants and drive out hypocrites (Isa. 33:14).
- To test the faith of sincere saints, and to strengthen it.
- To manifest his own grace by supporting them under the trying times, and by visiting them with future blessing.
- To secure to himself the glory when the happier days are granted.
1. His power may be gone. Personally he becomes helpless. Bodily health fails, prudence is baffled, skill is taken away, courage sinks, even spiritual force departs (Lam. 3:17-18).
2. His earthly help may fail. "There is none shut up or left)' A man without a friend moves the compassion of God.
3. He may be assailed by doubts and fears, and hardly know what to do with himself (Job 3:23-26). In all this there may be chastisement for sin. It is so described in the context.
4. His hope lies in the compassion of God: he has no pleasure in putting his people to grief. "He will turn again, he will have compassion" (Mic. 7:19). Such sharp trials may be sent because:
III. THE CONVINCED SINNER.
- Nothing less would cure the evil hidden within (Isa. 27:9).
- Nothing less might suffice to bring the whole heart to God alone.
- Nothing less might affect the believer's future life (Isa. 38:16).
- Nothing less might complete his experience, enlarge his acquaintance with the Word, and perfect his testimony for God.
He is cleaned out of all that wherein he prided himself.
1. His self-righteousness is gone. He has no boasting of the past, or self-trust for the future (Job 9:30-31).
2. His ability to perform acceptable works is gone. "Their power is gone." "Dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1 ).
3. His secret hopes which were shut up are now all dead and buried.
4. His proud romantic dreams are gone (Isa. 29:8).
5. His worldly delights, his bold defiance, his unbelief, his big talk, his carelessness, his vain confidence, are all gone.
6. Nothing is left but the pity of God (Ps. 103:13).
- When the tide has ebbed out to the very uttermost, it turns.
- The Prodigal had spent all before he returned.
- Empty-handed sinners are welcome to the fullness of Christ.
- Since the Lord repents of the sorrows of the desponding, they may well take heed and repent of their sins.
Notes in Aid
The Church in New Park Street was sadly reduced in numbers, and from the position of its meeting-house there seemed no prospect before it, but ultimate dissolution; but there were a few in its midst who never ceased to pray for a gracious revival. The congregation became smaller and smaller, but they hoped on, hoped ever. Let it never be forgotten that when they were at their worst the Lord remembered them, and gave to them such a tide of prosperity that they have had no mourning, or doubting, but more than thirty years of continued rejoicing:
Man's extremity is God's opportunity.
Extremities are a warrant for importunities.
A man at his wit's end is not at his faiths end.
Grandly did the old Scottish believer, of whom Dr. Brown tells us in his Horce Subsecivee, respond to the challenge of her pastor, regarding the ground of her faith. "Janet" said the minister, "what would you say if after all he has done for you, God should let you drop into hell?" "E'en's [even as] he likes," answered Janet. "If he does, he'll lose mair than I'll do," meaning that he would lose his honor for truth and goodness. Therefore, the Lord cannot leave his people in the hour of their need.
"Every praying Christian will find that there is no Gethsemane without its angel"
He brings his people into a wilderness, but it is that he may speak comfortably to them; he casts them into a fiery furnace, but it is that they may have more of his company. T. Brooks
A person who could not swim had fallen into the water. A man who could swim sprang in to save him. Instead, however, of at once taking hold of the struggling man, he kept at some distance from him until he had ceased struggling; he then laid hold of him, and pulled him ashore. Upon the people on the pier asking him why he did not at once take hold of the drowning person, he replied, "I could not attempt to save a man so long as he could try to save himself" The Lord acts thus towards sinners: they must cease from themselves, and then he will display the power of his grace upon them.
So long as a sinner has a mouldy crust of his own he will not feed upon heavenly manna. They say that half a loaf is better than no bread; but this is not true, for on half a loaf men lead a starvation existence, but when they have no bread they fly to Jesus for the food which came down from heaven. As long as a soul has a farthing to bless itself with, it will foolishly refuse the free forgiveness of its debts, but absolute penury drives it to the true riches:
'Tis perfect poverty alone
That sets the soul at large;
While we can call one mite our own
We get no full discharge.
Charles Hadden Spurgeon
14. Moral Inability
And Joshua said unto the people, Ye cannot serve the Lord. Joshua 24:19
In answer to Joshua's challenge, the people had said, "We will serve the Lord, for he is our God." But Joshua knew them too well to trust them, and reminded them that they were undertaking, what they could not perform. They did not believe him, but cried, "Nay, but we will serve the Lord"; but their after history proved the truth of Joshua's warning. God's word knows us better than we know ourselves. God's omniscience sees each part of our being as an anatomist sees the various portions of the body, and he therefore knows our moral and spiritual nature most thoroughly. A watchmaker is the best judge of a watch; and he who made man has the best knowledge of his condition and capacity. Let us dwell upon his verdict as to human ability.
I. THE CERTAINTY OF THE TRUTH THAT UNRENEWED MEN CANNOT SERVE GOD.
It is not a physical but a moral inability, and this is not in their nature, but in their fallen nature; not of God, but of sin. It may be said that they could serve God if they liked; but in that "if" lies the hinge of the whole question. Man's inability lies in the want of moral power so to wish and will as actually to perform. This leaves him with undiminished responsibility; for he ought to be able to serve God, and his inability is his fault (Jer. 13:23).
1. The nature of God renders perfect service impossible to depraved men. "Ye cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God, he is a jealous God." See context.
2. The best they could render as unrenewed men would lack heart and intent, and therefore must be unacceptable. Without love and faith men cannot please God. What are the prayers, alms, and worshippings of a Christless soul (Isa. 1:15)?
3. The law of God is perfect, comprehensive, spiritual, far-reaching: who can hope to fulfill it? If a look may commit adultery, who shall in all points keep the law (Matt. 5:28)?
4. The carnal mind is inclined to self-will, self-seeking, lust, enmity, pride, and all other evils. "It is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be" (Rom. 8:7).
5. Let men try to be perfectly obedient. They will not try it. They argue for their ability, but they are loth enough to exert it.
II. THE DISCOURAGEMENT WHICH ARISES FROM THIS TRUTH.
It is alleged that this will drive men to despair, and our reply is that the kind of despair to which it drives men is most desirable and salutary.
1. It discourages men from an impossible task.
They might as well hope to invent perpetual motion as to present a perfect obedience of their own, having already sinned. If a man should try to hold up a ladder with his own hand, and at the same time climb to the top of it, he would have less difficulty than in causing his evil nature to attain to holiness.
2. It discourages from a ruinous course.
Self-righteousness is a deadly thing; it is a proud refusal of mercy, and a rebellion against grace. Self-confidence of any sort is the enemy of the Savior.
3. It discourages reliance upon ceremonies or any other outward religiousness, by assuring men that these cannot suffice.
4. It discourages from every other way of self-salvation, and thus shuts men up to faith in the Lord Jesus. Nothing better can befall them (Gal. 2:22-23).
III. THE NECESSITIES OF WHICH WE ARE REMINDED BY THIS TRUTH.
Unregenerate men, before you can serve God you need:
- A new nature, which only the Spirit of God can create in you: the old man cannot serve the Lord. An impure fountain must pour out foul streams. The tree must be made good, or the fruit will not be good.
- Reconciliation. How shall an enemy serve his king? There must be forgiveness, friendship, mutual delight. God and you must be made friends through the Mediator, or else you cannot be the servant of God.
- Acceptance. Till you are accepted, your service cannot please God. Only a perfect righteousness can make you accepted of a holy and jealous God; and none but Jesus can give you a complete justification.
- Continued aid. This you must have to keep you in the way when once you are in it (1 Sam. 2:9; Jude 24:25).
- If you cannot serve God as you are, yet trust him as he manifests himself in Christ Jesus; and do this just as you are.
- This will enable you to serve him on better principles.
- This change of your nature will be effected by the Holy Spirit, who will come and dwell in you.
- This will fit you for heaven, where "his servants shall serve him."
No wasp will make honey; before it will do that it must be transformed into a bee. A sow will not sit up to wash its face like the cat before the fire; neither will a debauched person take delight in holiness. No devil could praise the Lord as angels do, and no unregenerate man can offer acceptable service as the saints do.
Their inability was wholly of the moral kind. They could not do it because they were not disposed to do it, just as it is said of Joseph's brethren (Gen. 37:4) that they "could not speak peaceably unto him" so strong was their personal dislike to him .... But an inability arising from this source was obviously inexcusable, on the same grounds that a drunkard's inability to master his propensity for strong drink is inexcusable. In like manner, the "cannot" of the impenitent sinner, in regard to the performance of his duty, is equally inexcusable. George Bush, in Notes on Joshua
The existence of sin within us entails on us certain consequences which we have no more power to evade than the idiot has power to change his look of idiocy; or the palsied hand has power to free itself from its torpor. B. W. Newton
"A little girl when reproved by her mother for some fault, and told that she should teach her little brothers to do right, replied, 'How can I do right when there is no right in me?' Did not Paul make the same confession" (Rom. 7:18)?
"Man cannot be saved by perfect obedience, for he cannot render it; he cannot be saved by imperfect obedience, for God will not accept it"
A man deeply exercised about his soul was conversing with a friend on the subject, when the friend said, "Come at once to Jesus, for he will take away all your sins from your back." "Yes, I am aware of that;' said the other, "but what about my back?" I find I have not only sins to take away, but there is myself; what is to be done with that? And there is not only my back, but hands and feet, and head and heart are such a mass of iniquity that it's myself I want to get rid of before I can get peace. British Evangelist
It is possible I may do an occasional service for one whose servant I am not, but it were mean that a great person should be served only by the servants of another lord. John Howe
Run, run, and work, the law commands,
But gives me neither feet nor hands;
But sweeter sounds the gospel brings,
It bids me fly, and gives me wings.
Charles Hadden Spurgeon
15. The Faithful Olive Tree
But the olive tree said unto them, Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honor God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees? Judges 9:9
THE fable teaches that temptations will come to us all, however sweet, or useful, or fruitful, even as they came to the fig, the olive, and the vine. These temptations may take the shape of proffered honors; if not a crown, yet some form of preferment or power may be the bribe. The trees were under God's government and wanted no king; but in this fable they "went forth" and so quitted their true place. Then they sought to be like men, forgetting that God had not made them to be conformed to a fallen race. Revolting themselves, they strove to win over those better trees which had remained faithful.
No wonder they chose the olive, so rich and honored; for it would give their kingdom respectability to have such a monarch; but the olive wisely declined, and gave its reason.
I. APPARENT PROMOTIONS ARE NOT TO BE SNATCHED AT.
The question is to be asked, Should I? Let us never do what would be unbecoming, unsuitable, unwise (Gen. 39:9).
Emphasis is to be laid on the I Should I? If God has given me peculiar gifts or special grace, does it become me to trifle with these endowments? Should I give them up to gain honor for myself (Neh. 6:11)?
II. ACTUAL ADVANTAGES ARE NOT TO BE TRIFLED WITH.
- A higher position may seem desirable, but would it be right to gain it by such cost (Jer. 45:5)?
- It will involve duties and cares. "Go up and down among the trees" implies that there would be care, oversight, traveling, etc.
- These duties will be quite new to me; for, like an olive, I have been hitherto planted in one place. Should I run into new temptations, new difficulties, etc., of my own wanton will?
- Can I expect God's blessing upon such strange work? Put the question in the case of wealth, honor, power, which are set before us. Should we grasp at them at the risk of being less at peace, less holy, less prayerful, less useful?
III. TEMPTATION SHOULD BE TURNED TO ACCOUNT.
- "Should I leave my fatness?" I have this great boon, should I lightly lose it?
- It is the greatest advantage in life to be useful both to God and man "By me they honor God and man." We ought heartily to prize this high privilege.
- To leave this for anything which the world can offer would be great loss. "Will a man leave the snow of Lebanon?" etc., (Jer. 18:14; 2:13).
- Our possession of fatness meets the temptation to become a king. We are happy enough in Christ, in his service, with his people, and in the prospect of the reward. We cannot better ourselves by the move; let us stay as we are.
- We may also meet it by the reflection.
- That the prospect is startling "Shall I leave my fatness?" For an olive to do this would be unnatural: for a believer to leave holy living would be worse (John 6:68).
- That the retrospect would be terrible--"leave my fatness." What must it be to have left grace, and truth, and holiness, and Christ? Remember Judas.
- That even an hour of such leaving would be a loss. What would an olive do even for a day if it left its fatness?
- That it would all end in disappointment; for nothing could compensate for leaving the Lord. All else is death (Jer. 17:13).
- That to abide firmly and reject all baits is like the saints, the martyrs, and their Lord; but to prefer honor to grace is a mere bramble folly.
- Let us take deeper root. The mere proposal to leave our fatness should make us hold the faster to it.
- Let us be on the watch that we lose not our joy, which is our fatness. If we would not leave it, neither can we bear that it should leave us.
- Let us yield more fatness, and bear more fruit: he who gains largely is all the further removed from loss. The more we increase in grace the less are we likely to leave it.
- Let us feel the more content, and speak the more lovingly of our gracious state, that none may dare to entice us. When Satan sees us happily established he will have the less hope of overthrowing us.
Many to obtain a higher wage have left holy companionships, and sacred opportunities for hearing the word and growing in grace. They have lost their Sabbaths, quitted a soul-feeding ministry, and fallen among worldlings, to their own sorrowful loss. Such persons are as foolish as the poor Indians who gave the Spaniards gold in exchange for paltry beads. Riches procured by impoverishing the soul are always a curse. To increase your business so that you cannot attend week-night services is to become really poorer; to give up heavenly pleasure, and receive earthly cares in exchange is a sorry sort of barter.
Sir Edward Coke, Chief Justice of England in the time of James I., was a man of noble spirit, and often incurred the displeasure of the king by his
patriotism. On one occasion, when an unworthy attempt was made to influence his conduct, he replied, "When the case happens I shall do that which shall be fit for a judge to do." Oh, that all Christians in trying moments would act as shall be fit for followers of Christ to do!
In Tennyson's story of the village maiden, who became the wife of the Lord of Burleigh, we see how burdensome worldly honors may prove, even when though unsought they have been honorably gained:
"But a trouble weighed upon her,
And perplexed her, night and morn,
With the burthen of an honor
Unto which she was not born.
"Were it not better to bestow
Some place and power on me?
Then should thy praises with me grow,
And share in my degree.
"How know I, if thou shouldst me raise,
That I should then raise thee?
Perhaps great places and thy praise
Do not so well agree"
Say not this calling and vocation to which God has appointed me is too small and insignificant for me. God's will is the best calling, and to be faithful to it is the worthiest. God often places great blessings in little things. Should thy proud heart learn humility and resignation by this humble work, wouldest thou not have high wages for thy low service? From the German
Charles Hadden Spurgeon