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Great Christian Works:     Natural Emblems Of Spiritual Life   By A. B. Simpson

A. B. Simpson

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Natural Emblems Of Spiritual Life
By A. B. Simpson

The Transformed Desert

"When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry ground springs of water. I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, the shittah tree, and the myrtle, and the oil tree. I will set in the desert the fir tree, and the pine, and the box tree together: That they may see, and know, and consider, and understand together, that the hand of the Lord hath done this, and the Holy One of Israel hath created it. Produce your cause, saith the Lord; bring forth your strong reasons, saith the King of Jacob."   Isaiah 41:17-21

AS I HAVE gone up and down the coast of New Jersey recently, I have seen city after city of beauty, and culture, and wealth and progress, on those desert shores where a few years ago were nothing but sand heaps and salt marshes. It has seemed so beautiful, and it has brought a whole train of thought as I have noticed this desert barrenness springing into beauty, to refresh the tired population of the cities, who go out to these desert places for rest and quiet. There can be found there beautiful green shade, and all the variety and adornment of landscape gardening, combined with all the architectural beauty of home life.

It has brought many sweet passages of Scripture to my mind, showing how God is constantly putting surprises in human life. It is not where circumstances would seem to favor their growth, but in the midst of surrounding barrenness, that the prophet sees the myrtle, and the box, and the cedar and the palm tree planted, making the wilderness and solitary place to be glad for them, and the desert to rejoice and blossom as the rose. It is in the most unlikely places, and where we should least expect to find them that His Divine grace and eternal glories are seen. Why He done this? "That they may see, and know, and consider and understand together, that the hand of the Lord hath done this." It is to make plainly apparent the truth, that this is not man's work at all.

I.

Let us look more particularly at the teaching of the text. We see man's hopelessness and misery described under the figure of helplessness and need. It is when the poor and needy seek water that it is found. There is not only need, but there is inability to meet that need. The one thing is set over against the other. There is a wearisome search, not a cry. There is an attempt to find, and a failure, and then the exhaustion that follows, as though there were One up in heaven whom we could not reach, and to whom we were crying. But God hears the cry, however low it may be. "I the Lord, will hear them." God hears the cry that has never got beyond the lips; that is not louder than a groan, that is only formed in the inner recess of the heart, from the deep sense of need. God is listening for the groan; He is nigh, and is watching to save us from our distresses.

Paul tells us in the Epistle to the Romans: "He that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God." "He that searcheth the heart." That is what God is doing. He is not sitting coldly up in heaven, and coming to us when we call upon Him. He is searching the heart; He is looking through and through the spirit to see if there is any desire for Him there. We may not be conscious of its presence, but He knows it. "I the Lord will hear them."

When the soul has reached the point of extreme distress, and disappointment, and need, and depression, where it is in the midst of every sort of desolation or of toil, and seems drifting utterly away from God; when the life is one great wilderness in which there is no shrub nor tree growing, nor any springs of water that is the place where God comes to make it glad with rivers of refreshment. When you are in the midst of great need, and almost feel that everything must be given up, when you feel as if you could not even pray, and are so tired that you can only fold your hands and entreat in a voiceless kind of way that language He will understand; that prayer God hears and answers.

Too tired, too worn to pray,
I can but fold my hands.

Ah, I think that is prayer of the highest kind. Are you in deep trouble? Are you at the end of all your resources? Have you sought water and found none, and is your tongue feeling for thirst? That moment of supreme, single-hearted earnestness is the time when God draws near. I have never seen a soul so sad, so worn, so depressed, that it was willing to let all go, but it was quickly saved, and brought into glorious victory. And the weary, depressed, and hopeless face has been set like a flint, and the soul has overcome, and God has given it His rich blessing. "Ye shall seek Me, and find Me, when ye shall search for Me with all your heart."

II.

We see next the divine provision that God makes for those who do thus seek Him. He opens rivers in high places. You would naturally expect to find them in the low places. He opens fountains in the midst of the valleys. The place of fountains is on high, but God puts the rivers on the mountain tops, and the fountains way down in the depths. He always works contrary to the natural things you expect to find. The provision for your spiritual help He has placed out of the ordinary line. His principle of redeeming, and saving, and delivering men is by grace. The principle of all God's working with his children is contrary to our expectation. He makes the valley of Achor, which was the place of troubling, a door of hope. He caused the prison to become a throne to Joseph.

The lions' den, where Daniel was thrown, became a cage in which not only the lions were subdued, but Darius and the whole of Babylon also. The cross was a place, not only of suffering, but of salvation for the whole world. In the Philippian jail, God not only opened the prison and released the poor prisoners from their bonds, but it was the place of salvation for the jailer also. He takes things which seem to be against all help, and turns them into places of blessing. The natural things, which seem to us most perverse and crooked now, may become transformed into the most beautiful things of our lives. The attractive ornaments that people wear, are made from the wrecks of former convulsions.

The precious jewels are many of them the results of the upheaval of great forces in the crust of the earth. The science of geology shows us what has been done in this way in the ages of the past by these upheavals and convulsions, which have cast these priceless gems into the bosoms of the rocks, from which they have been gathered and polished by the hands of man into exquisite jewels. So grace sends down help in unlooked-for places, and comes in sweet benedictions upon the trials of life. If we look for it below we may not find it. We must look for the river on the mountains, and for the springs in the depths of the valleys.

III.

We see next the fruit of God's deliverance in the garden which He plants. We find it in the wilderness, in the out of the way places. Sahara, which is a place of sand banks, shall be covered with verdure, in which there shall be sparkling fountains, flowers and trees. As we look at it, we find it covered with every variety of the productions of nature. So God's garden has every possible variety of beauty and refreshment, and it becomes an evidence of His blessing and all-sufficient grace. There is a great variety of imagery in this wonderful picture. The various kinds of trees have each a meaning, which is fulfilled in spiritual life and character. The first tree mentioned in the garden of Eden is the tree of life; the next is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

When God wished to choose a type of His purified people, He chose the burning bush, a tree on fire. When the Lord wanted Daniel to give a type of the nations He chose a tree which grew and was strong, and then was cut down to the roots, which will yet be fulfilled in the history of the Gentile races. When Jesus Christ would give a picture of the growth of Christianity He too chose a tree; the mustard tree, which became so large that the birds of the air could lodge in the branches. Ezekiel gives a picture of the freshness and power of the Gospel, under the figure of a river, and he speaks of all manner of trees growing upon the banks, "whose fruit shall be for meat and the leaves for medicine." It was a tree that brought man's curse, and it was a tree that took it away. "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us; for it is written: Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree."

The tree of Calvary became the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The imagery of the Bible is full of trees, both shade trees and fruit trees, and the picture that Isaiah gives shows how prodigal nature plants them luxuriantly in the wilderness, and they are all types of different phases of spiritual life. Our parks are filled with their beautiful shade. It is marvelous how freely these types of fullness and gladness are planted. Their exquisite, graceful drapery shows us the freedom and the lovliness of nature. Their root running down into the ground, and their branches reaching up into the air, are beautiful types, to us, of the way in which our spiritual life is to be fed. It is the image that God wants us to see, is planted in the midst of the wilderness.

The leaf is given for the healing of disease, as well as for the joy and gladness of the Christian heart. There is a marvelous similarity in the structure of the tree to our physical as well as to our spiritual life. The leaf is the counterpart of the human frame. The stalk and ribs have a wonderful correspondence to be back-bone and ribs of our own body, and the pulpy part has its analogy in the flesh. The pores in the skin are exceedingly sensitive to the air around which has a correspondence also in our physical life. The whole tree is a microcosm of man. The roots are sent down into the soil; so, our spiritual life is to be deeply rooted in Christ. Its tender leaves draw in nourishment from the air around.

So we are to be living ever in an atmosphere of spiritual life, from which we too shall derive strength. The tree is developed from a seed, which expands into perfect life, but the principle was all there in the beginning, in the germ. So Christ plants spiritual life in our hearts, and the fullness of its development is there at first in the germ. But it has to expand and grow into the perfect likeness of Christ.

Then, too, trees have a marvelous system of circulation. The sap starts from the roots and ascends through the whole structure, going to the very extremities of the smallest leaves, and sending the life of the tree through every part. So, too, the human soul has a wonderful system of circulation. The secret of spiritual life is to have the life of your Lord going through all the being. The sap of the tree is always flowing, even when it is dead to all appearance on the outside. In the winter the tree seems to be dead and cold. But if you could go down into it you would find the flowing spring of life there, long before the spring has come to the outer world. It is rising up into all the branches, and waiting only for the real spring time to make its power seen.

Before the winter began, the tiny leaflets folded themselves about the bud which was to take the place of the fruit of the summer. This was to become the leafage and fruitage of the next year, and lay safely housed from the cold during all the wintry days. Thus is a sweet teaching in all this for our spiritual life, which may be living and strong within us when all appears to be still and dead. It may not be manifest even to our own feeling, and there may be no evidence to others that we are quickened by the life of God. But his nature has been planted within us, and the forces of faith and love are working there, although unseen. It is life from within, and it cannot be judged by outward evidence.

We can look at the tree and learn a lesson also from the manner of its growth. It is not like a building which is erected brick by brick. This is very different. One grows by the outside additions of brick and mortar, and by all the appliances of man's mechanism. Yonder tree is growing by no touch at all of man; no fibre in it has been the result of his work; it is growing from within; it is working out the irrepressible fullness of its inner life, which forms fibre after fibre, and expands into forms of beauty and strength, but it is all the result of materials which were laid up in the heart of the tree. A very little time will reduce the house to ashes, but the tree will look down upon scores of generations.

Pass an age or two away, I shall moulder and decay;
But the years that crumble me shall invigorate the tree.

As we look on these grand monarchs of the forest, and see how they rear their noble heads high in air, spread their branches around, we cannot but feel how much more superb they are than any of the works of man. I was looking yesterday at many different kinds of trees; some of them massive oaks and pines which have lasted a thousand years, and which money could not buy. Vanderbilt, with all his wealth, would not be able to plant one of them in New York. Long Branch could not put out a tree which is older than fifteen or twenty years. They are all God's work, and they are marvelous types of spiritual life. The tree has a system of roots and of circulation of its sap, of growth from the seed, of increase from within, of the unfolding and development of its life from vital forces, rather than from the working of outward mechanism, and of porous leaves which are open channels to receive fresh vigor from the influence of the air around.

In all these things, we behold the picture of divine life which God has planted in the heart as a living seed, and which there develops into wondrous beauty, sending its roots down deep into Christ, circulating His life through all its being, developing itself from within and not from without through the living forces that are working there, and yet drawing in from all surrounding influences whatever will advance its spiritual development, and so lifting up the whole being into a glorious symmetry, and a beautiful likeness to the person of the Lord.

The principle of grafting is a marvelous approximation to the root idea of Christian life - that is, resurrection life. If we wish to be perfect in Him, and fruitful in His life, we must have a new nature planted within us, or else we shall produce but wild berries or sour crabs. God does not slay the old physical life, but He changes its nature. He puts upon the old root a branch or a stem, with life in it that came from another. It is a glorious thing to wake up and find something divine within us. It sends a thrill through all the being, and it makes things become easy to us which have always been desperately hard to our natures before.

The reason is that there is a new altitude of heart and spirit, and things are now no longer hard because they are so natural. Put a little touch of divinity within us, and we are different beings. We spring instinctively into joy and praise, and trust and love. There is something within the heart which did not use to be there, and it is easy to be happy, and fresh, and sweet. It is easy to be true to Christ, and no longer be obliged to say: "Oh, that I knew where I could find Him!" It is easy now to find Him, naturally and readily. The old root is good enough. It does not need to kill us bodily and literally, but only to put within us His own life which will spontaneously develop and put on His own spiritual nature.

IV.

There is a lesson to be learned also from the variety of trees. The Bible uses them as types of the diversity of Christian life.

1. We can learn perhaps more lessons from the palm than from any other tree. It is the queen of trees. We do not know it here, excepting by the little shoots, which are sent more to disappoint us than for anything else. The palm is the richest production of the prodigality of nature. It grows straight up to the sky, and holds its fruit there in the very blaze of the glorious sun. It is a type of the lofty aspiration of Christian life. The long roots of the great tree absorb moisture from the sandy soil, even in the face of the hottest sun that ever shone out of the hottest sky. You cannot make it too hot for a palm, nor can you for some people either, if they too know how to absorb the sweet influences of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the most trying circumstances.

The palm has a marvelous usefulness. It is refreshing both in cool and in hot weather. Its fibres are made into cordage, and its trunk into beautiful wood-work. It gives sugar and, wine, and a great variety of food. We get sago, and cocoanuts, and dates from it. It is a type of the uprightness and loftiness of Christian life, and of its practical utility also.

2. The cedar is a type of another side of this subject. It is a picture of the rooted Christian, who gets his supplies of strength and vigor from deeper sources of divine supplies. The cedar sends down its deep tap-roots which can take hold even upon the rocks of Lebanon and defy the tempests of the Mediterranean. No storm can possibly shake it from out this fortress of its strength. It is a type of endurance, and of stability also. Its wood lasts longer than almost any other. So the Christian that is deeply rooted in Christ is a stable Christian. He is able to stand the heaviest storms without being shaken. We find its wood was used in the temple, and we see from this that God would use in erecting His spiritual temple within our hearts these same qualities of strength and vitality.

3. The olive tree is useful principally for its oil. It teaches us that Christian faces are to shine with the beauty of the Holy Spirit. His glory is to be manifest in all their being; they are the anointed ones, and receive from this anointing the gifts of beauty and of power.

4. The various fruit trees also bring us useful lessons. The pomegranate shows the value of having precious seed to scatter, and in many ways these trees teach us the lesson of fruit bearing.

5. From the shade trees God teaches us that He would have us be as shades, to keep the sun off from other people, and to be a shelter to them from the wind and the storm.

6. There are precious lessons also to be learned from the spice trees, which are mentioned in numerous cases in the Bible. God wants spiritual spice trees in His garden. As one approaches Singapore, or other parts of the Malaysian regions, he is swept by breaths of sweetness from the spice groves on the shore, which are filling the air with fragrance. God uses these as the types of the spiritual sweetness and fragrance which should ever be surrounding His children.

7. The fig tree, which was cursed by our Saviour, is a type of the showiness of Christian life without fruit. "Every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire." That is, the tree that abides not in Christ for fruitage as well as for life is to be cast into the fire and burned. Which of these trees are we, dear friends? God wants fruit trees; trees that are more productive even than those that are in nature. He does not expect one harvest from us once in a year, but many times. The trees that John saw yielded their fruit every month. He is expecting new fruit from us all the time, and that not the same kind.

If we are in the same spiritual state all the while, we become tiresome to Him, and to ourselves, and to others. We are to get new thought out of the Bible; new calls for service. We are to be going further and rising higher all the way. There is fruit for you, young people; for you, middle-aged ones, and for you old ones, too. There is fruit for the shop, and for the sewing room, and for the editor's office; for the salesman at the counter and the broker at his desk. As we go on constantly in the divine life, how constantly should new life be borne. As I was on last night, a young lady took a seat beside me, and I soon saw that she recognized me, and so I entered into conversation with her, in which ventured timidly to tell me that she had wanted for a long time to speak to me about her soul.

I believe she entered into rest and peace before we parted. It was fruit by the way, but it might not have been gathered. At the next station a young man sat down by me whom I shall not soon forget. He was a reckless blasphemer, but I was able, kindly and gently, to gain his attention, and talk to him of his soul, and I believe he will yet be saved. It is possible for us, dear friends, to have fruit all the way along. At a child's funeral, not long ago, out in Chicago, a young man leaned over the coffin and burst into such bitter tears that many present thought that he must be a near relative of the deceased. When questioned quietly about it he said: "Ah, no, he was not a relative, but he was more toy me than all the friends in the world. A year ago I was up in the top of a building, and he was watching me, and saw me in peril; and when I came down he said: 'Were you not frightened to be up so high?

No, you were not, because you had said your prayers in the morning.' I had not said my prayers that morning, nor many mornings before, but I said them that night, and I have been saying them ever since." This was the fruit of a child. It was borne in the first month, but you can have it then as well as in the last. Young men, you can have fruit for Christ in your season, as well as the more mature Christian in his. Two men met once beside a well in their journey. One was a Christian; the other had no thought about religion. As they parted they looked a moment in each other's face, and the Christian asked the other a question about his soul, and added a little word about the Saviour, and then they parted, never to meet again. But the conversation was not forgotten.

Years afterward the unconverted man was laboring as a missionary in Africa, wondering all the time who it was who had brought him to the Lord. He struggled there to glorify Christ, and was blessed in his work. One day he received a package of books from England to start a library in his mission station, and as he opened one of them, he saw the picture of James Brainerd Taylor, and exclaimed: "That is the man who spoke to me at the well." Oh, what fruit it was, and what a joy it will be to that servant of God to trace its results throughout all eternity. I feel like encouraging you this morning to labor earnestly in this service, and yet to work simply and naturally in it. The work is only hindered by those who do it rashly or in an unbecoming manner. Let us have fruit on our spiritual trees every month.

Let there be blossoms on one, and young fruit on another, and ripe fruit on another, that the people who are looking upon the work, and we ourselves also "may see, and know, and consider, and understand together that the hand of the Lord hath done this, and the Holy One of Israel hath created it." How grateful it is to God's weary ones to find a tree in some hot place that brings to the tired soul rest, and blessing, and food, and refreshment. You can be a tree like that, beloved; you can be a shade from the heat, and a resting place for the weary. You can have fruit which shall be meat for the hungry, and leaves which shall heal the bruised and save the sick. Ezekiel saw such trees.

Oh, that God would plant them in the desert of your life, and cause it to become the beautiful garden in our text. It is in just such desert places that He wants them to grow. If you are in any dreary, unromantic, unpromising situation, take this text for your own today, and say: "I need the rivers in the high places, and the fountains in the midst of the valleys; I need to have the desert of my life turned into a garden of the Lord." And then, let Him plant in it the trees for shade, and for fruitage, for sweetness, and for strength and for everlasting life, "that they may see, and know, and consider, and understand together, that the hand of the Lord hath done this, and the Holy One of Israel hath created it."

So may He turn all that is useless in your life to become a blessing to others, and may He send home the question to all our hearts this morning: "Is my life a blessing to others? Am I used by the Lord as a shade tree or as a fruit tree?"

Chapter 17  

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"When to seek God has become life and to glorify God has become self, then you have truly found God."