Pleasant Plants and Desperate Sorrow - Part 1
Preached at North Street Chapel, Stamford, on Lord s Day Morning, 23rd December, 1860.
EVER since the fall, sorrow and disappointment have been the decreed lot of man; for on that sad and evil day when Adam sinned and fell, God cursed the ground for his sake, and declared that in sorrow he should eat of it all the days of his life. Thorns also and thistles-emblems of vexation and disappointment-was it to bring forth to him, and in the sweat of his face he was to eat bread until he returned unto the ground from whence he was taken. "Dust," said God to him, "thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." Ge 3:17-19.
Sorrow, therefore, and disappointment being, by God s decree, the determined lot of man, no exertion of human skill or subtle contrivance of earthly wisdom can possibly avert them. As, then, a sailor putting out to sea, however softly the wind may blow, feels sure of encountering storms before the end of his voyage, and makes provision accordingly, so it will be our wisdom, however fair may be our present sky, to anticipate stormy winds and rough seas before we reach our destined harbour. But of all sorrows, the most cutting is that which we bring upon ourselves; and of all disappointments, the most keen is that of which we feel ourselves to be the main and miserable authors. There is not a more true nor a more stinging reproof from the mouth of God to one under his chastening hand than this, "Hast thou not procured this unto thyself, in that thou hast forsaken the Lord thy God?" nor a severer sentence against a disobedient child than, "Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backslidings shall reprove thee: know, therefore, and see, that it is an evil thing and bitter that thou hast forsaken the Lord thy God, and that my fear is not in thee, saith the Lord God of hosts." Jer 2:19.
Let me illustrate this point, for it is one of much importance, by one or two figures. When a ship leaves the harbour on a foreign voyage, it is naturally expected that she will be tossed by wind and wave; and no skill or care of the captain can always preserve her from being cast upon the rocks. But if the captain of a ship, from sheer wilfullness or drunkenness, when he hears the cry "Breakers ahead!" still holds on his course without slackening his sail or shifting his helm, and thus rushes on to destruction, although the eye of pity may drop a tear over the loss of vessel and crew, yet it can scarcely compassionate the case of the author of the calamity as perishing by his own madness and folly. But you will perhaps say, "We do not dispute your figure, but we think that such a fact must be most improbable, if not utterly impossible." I will not admit its improbability, still less its impossibility, for it is what many a drunken captain has done. But were it even so, literally and naturally, it is too possible, may I not say too frequent in grace. Hart, with all his deep experience, never wrote a truer verse than this, in which he expresses, with contrition of heart, his own mad folly in having so acted:
O what a fool have I been made,
Or rather made myself!
That mariner s mad part I played
Who sees yet strikes the shelf.
But take another figure to illustrate the same point, which shall also be borrowed from melancholy facts. Among those who have been condemned in these last few years to penal servitude for life, have been some who occupied at one time respectable if not high positions in society, and as such were intrusted with sums of money to a large amount. Seduced by the love of gain or a passion for pleasure, they were tempted to commit the crime of forgery, or in some way embezzle money entrusted to their charge. Detection, the almost invariable consequence of crime, followed. They were arrested, tried, and condemned, and are now in penal servitude. Now when clothed in the prison dress, he has none other for his daily and hourly companions but the vilest felons that by their conduct or conversation can disgrace human nature-would not such a man feel this to be the deepest aggravation of his miserable case, that he had brought upon himself that intolerable weight of woe, and that none but himself had been the guilty cause of all his ruin? So in grace: there is no sorrow so keen, no disappointment so cutting, as to reflect that whatever we may suffer under God s chastening strokes, even were he to visit us with his eternal displeasure, we ourselves have been the authors of our own misery.
But you may say, "What has all this to do with the text? I do not see any connection between it and the truth which you have been seeking by your figures to impress upon our minds." Allow me to say that I do. I see a connection between the text and the rueful consequences of our own madness and folly, and that is the reason why I have given you this introduction; for I see in the words before us that in them the Lord sharply reproves his people for "forgetting the God of their salvation and not being mindful of the Rock of their strength." I see also that He tells them the consequences of their forgetfullness, that though they had planted pleasant plants and had set strange slips; that though in the day they had made their plant to grow, and in the morning had made their seed to flourish; yet, instead of reaping as they expected a bountiful crop, they should find the harvest to be "a heap in the day of grief and of desperate sorrow."
I have thus given you a plain sketch, a simple outline, of the meaning of the text, which I shall, with God s help and blessing, now proceed more largely to fill up; and in endeavouring to do so, I shall bring before your notice these four leading features:
1.- First, our sin in forgetting the God of our salvation, and being unmindful of the Rock of our strength.
II.- Secondly, the consequence of this forgetfullness and of this unmindfullness; that in our folly and madness, we plant pleasant plants and set our garden with strange slips.
III.- Thirdly, that a temporary success often attends this planting and setting, "In the day shalt thou make thy plant to grow, and in the morning shalt thou make thy seed to flourish."
IV.-But fourthly, what is the harvest? A crop or a failure? Alas! Miserably, most miserably of the latter. For it is but "a heap in the day of grief and of desperate sorrow."
I.-The Lord in our text speaks to his people: it is to them in fact and for them, speaking generally, that the whole Bible is written. Not but what God does speak in his holy word in many passages to men generally, that he may, clear himself of all injustice, and leave without excuse those who neglect so great a salvation as he has there brought to light. Heb 2:3 But viewed as a divine revelation, the Bible is written, for the most part, for the saints of God, for they really are the only persons who can read it with enlightened eyes, believe its promises, obey its precepts, and live under its sanctifying power and influence. Here certainly, whatever other parts he may address generally to the sons of men, he speaks to his people, and this not in love but in displeasure; for he brings against them a heavy charge, of which the import is, that they have "forgotten the God of their salvation, and not been mindful of the Rock of their strength." Let us examine this charge, and weigh well the words of this indictment, for they are addressed to us as much as to Israel of old, and in them, if we have but ears to hear, we may find the Lord speaking to our consciences.
But before I draw the bill of indictment and bring the contents to bear upon your consciences, I must shew you how it is aggravated by the character of Him from whom it comes. Were He only great we might tremble at his authority without being smitten into contrition at his mercy; but he is good as well as great; and as this aggravates our offence, so it magnifies his grace. The title which he gives himself, is "the God of our salvation." This part then of God s character I have to unfold; and as he gives a prospective glance to the Son of his love, the Lord Jesus Christ, for he is spoken of here as the "Rock of our strength," I must also direct your thoughts to the Lord of life and glory as that Rock on which the church is built. In speaking thus, I speak in the fullest harmony with the oracles of God, for the Bible, first and last, ascribes all salvation to Him, not only in its manifestation in the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in its eternal issue in deliverance of all that fear his name from everlasting destruction, but in that original contrivance in which infinite wisdom combined with infinite grace to save millions of sinners through the blood of the everlasting covenant. Thus, because all salvation is in, and from, and of him, he is called here and elsewhere "the God of our salvation;" for He so took the whole of salvation into his own hands that he is the very God of it, as calling it all his own and appropriating to himself its beginning and end, its design and execution, all its grace on earth and all its glory in heaven.
But to establish this more plainly and clearly, I shall endeavour to show that he is "the God of our salvation" in four distinct particulars:
i First, he is so as the eternal designer and planner of it. Thoughts how the church should be saved, occupied the divine mind from all eternity. Not that God knew not what to do; not that he had to take long and labourious counsel with himself before he could originate or fix the plan. I mean not that; but I see that in the Scripture the way of salvation, as originated in the mind of God, is ever spoken of as the highest display of God s wisdom. Thus the Apostle speaks: "To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord." Eph 3:10,11 So again, "But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the world unto our glory." 1Co 2:7 And filled, as if fired with a gracious admiration of this infinite wisdom, the same blessed man of God cried out, as in an ecstasy of holy wonder, "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God." Ro 11:33 The difficulty, so to speak, was to harmonise the jarring claims of justice and mercy. If mercy triumphed, justice must be violated. If sin be not punished, every perfection of God might be violated with impunity. If justice be avenged, what escape is there for the criminal? To harmonise then these jarring claims, that mercy and justice might meet together, and righteousness and peace might kiss each other, was indeed a task beyond the united wisdom of men and angels. But God contrived a way, and in the gift of his dear Son as a sacrifice for sin designed a plan for the salvation of sinners, by which they might be everlastingly saved, and he himself eternally glorified.
ii But secondly, not only was this salvation to be devised and its foundations laid deep in the eternal counsels, but it had to be executed. An architect may have in his mind a beautiful plan, and with much thought and care may have designed a noble structure: but whilst it is yet in his mind or only on paper, it is a shadow without a substance. It must be executed that it may be seen, erected that it may be admired, constructed that it may be a monument of his ability, as well as a permanent object of beauty and use. So the plan of salvation which had been contrived in the mind of God, had to be executed by the hand of him from whom it originated. Its execution commenced on the day that the Son of his love came into this world and took our nature into union with his own divine Person. And as its execution then commenced, so it was gradually carried on during the time that our blessed Lord sojourned here below, for during that time he was ever doing the will of God. Thus he said "I must work the works of him that sent me while it is day" Joh 9:4; and again, "My meat is to do the will of him that sent me and to finish his work." Joh 4:34 When, then, that blessed God-man went about doing good; when that man of sorrows and acquainted with grief sweat great drops of blood in Gethsemane s gloomy garden; when he bare our sins in his own body on the tree; when by his active and passive obedience he wrought out and brought in a glorious righteousness, then God s eternal plan of salvation was fully executed. Did not the blessed Lord himself attest this with his dying lips, when he cried in a loud voice, that heaven and earth might hear, "It is finished!" As though he should say "The work is done; salvation is accomplished; my people are ransomed; justice is satisfied; every perfection of God glorified, and all his attributes harmonised. It is enough. I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do." Then he bowed his dying head and gave up the ghost, committing his departing spirit into the hands of his heavenly Father.
iii But there is, thirdly, the application of this great salvation to the heart; for though we may hear of this salvation as being planned in the mind of God, or read in the scriptures what Jesus did and suffered in its execution; yet until that salvation is brought near to our heart, revealed and applied to our conscience, what do we really know of it as designed or executed for us? Are there not thousands who live and die without any personal knowledge of, or saving interest in this great salvation? And will not this be our case also, unless it be brought with a divine power into our soul? As, then, he is the "God of our salvation," the same God who designed it in his own eternal mind, and executed it in the Person and work of his dear Son, reveals it, manifests it, and brings it near to believing hearts, according to his own words, "I bring near my righteousness." And it is the personal experience of this which alone can assure us that we are saved in the Lord Jesus Christ with an everlasting salvation.
iv But fourthly, as being the God of our salvation, he has to maintain this salvation, as well as to apply it; because we are ever backsliding from it, forgetting it, and becoming unmindful of it. Is not this the very charge that he brings against his people in the words of our text, "Because thou hast forgotten the God of thy salvation?" But because we forget him does he forget us? Does he not rather say, "Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee" Isa 49:15; and do we not also read, "I will heal their backslidings, I will love them freely, for mine anger is turned away from him?" Ho 14:4 Where would be the temple of mercy if the same hands of the spiritual Zerubbabel which laid the foundation should not finish it? And where would be the shoutings of eternal joy if he did not bring forth the head stone amidst the universal cry, "Grace, grace unto it?" Zec 4:7
But before I proceed to the main object of my discourse, I must drop a word upon the title given in our text to the Lord Jesus Christ, for he is here spoken of under the name of "the Rock of our strength." He is often called a "Rock" in Scripture, and we may therefore well ask what ideas does the name thus given to him convey? It conveys several. The leading idea is that of a fortified place, for as in Palestine they were much exposed to hostile incursions from the border nations, rocky hills were strongly fortified, and were thus made great use of as places of defence against the enemy. We thus read of the "munitions of rocks?" that is places not merely steep and mountainous, but so artificially fortified and strengthened by walls and bulwarks, that the enemy was not able to carry them, except by siege, which in those days, at least by the border tribes, was but rarely employed. Thus David says, "The Lord is my rock and my fortress." In this sense, then, Christ is "the Rock of our strength," as being the refuge of our soul, in whom we may take shelter from every foe, as the Benjamites in the rock Rimmon Jud 20:47: as Samson in the top of the rock Etam Jud 15:8: and David in the rock cave of Adullam. But another idea conveyed by the term rock, is that of a solid foundation. Thus, as being the foundation on which God has built his Church, Jesus is indeed "the Rock of ages" that God has laid in Zion, for he is "a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation." Isa 28:16 Did not he himself say to Peter "On this rock I will build my Church?" Mt 6:18 And what is this rock but he himself in his glorious Deity, eternal Sonship and suffering humanity?
But it is not my present object so much to dwell upon the points I have just brought before you, as to show you the miserable consequences of forgetting "the God of our salvation," and becoming unmindful of "the Rock of our strength." This is indeed a heavy charge, but there are few of the family of God to whom it is not, in greater or less measure, applicable.
When the Lord is first graciously pleased to bless the soul with some manifestation of his great salvation, and to reveal, by the unction of his grace and the teaching of his Spirit, the Rock of our strength, then we cleave to him with purpose of heart; we worship him in spirit and in truth. His yoke is then easy and his burden light; and we run with patience the race set before us, looking unto Jesus as the author and finisher of our faith. But after a time, when the Lord begins to withdraw his presence, deadness, coldness, darkness, and a general stupidity and lethargy gradually come over the mind. And if we give way to this spirit of slumber, and we often do give way-for even the wise virgins as well as the foolish slumbered and slept in the absence of the bridegroom-what is the consequence? We forget the God of our salvation, and become unmindful of the Rock of our strength.
II-But as one sin is almost sure to draw on another, the blessed Spirit in our text has pointed out the consequence, the miserable consequence, of this backsliding from the Lord; which I proposed to unfold as the second point of my bill of indictment this morning, and which springs out of the Lord s judicial displeasure for our sad forgetfullness of the God of our salvation. "Therefore shalt thou plant pleasant plants, and shall set it with strange slips."
The Church is compared in the song of Solomon to a garden: "A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse." So 4:12 And this garden the Holy Ghost represents in that sacred Book, as planted with trees of the greatest fragrance and beauty, such as "Pomegranates, camphire, spikenard, and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices." The climate of the east is for the most part too dry and scorching for flowers such as deck our English gardens. Trees therefore, such as the vine, the pomegranate, and the citron, and fragrant shrubs, of which we here know little but the names, occupy their place. Spiritually viewed, these are the graces of the Spirit, which not only give forth a fragrant odour to gladden, but food also to feast the heavenly Bridegroom; for he delights in the fruits and graces of his own Spirit. This made the Bride say, "Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits;" to which he answers, "I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse; I have gathered my myrrh with my spice." So 4:16 So 5:1
But not only is the Church, viewed generally, a garden in which the Lord takes supreme delight, but each individual soul in which he works by his Holy Spirit may be represented by the same figure; for it is thus that general truths are brought home to particular cases, and what is true of the Church as a whole is true of each member of it as an individual. This seems to be the garden referred to in the text, in which we unhappily too often plant our pleasant plants and set it with strange slips. Now this garden should have nothing in it, as the garden of the Lord, but the graces and fruits of the Spirit. Weeds will spring up; scarce any amount of careful culture can keep them down; for as charlock and thistles will grow in the field, so chick-weed and groundsel will start up in the most carefully cultivated garden. But this is not the charge brought against the Church here. The Lord does not reprove her for neglect of her garden, nor for the weeds that spring up in the borders. This were fault enough, but there is a much greater; that with her own hand she plants pleasant plants in the Lord s borders, and sets strange slips in those beds in which he himself had planted myrrh, and aloes, and all the chief spices. This, of course, has a mystical and spiritual meaning, and what this is I have now, with God s help and blessing, to open; and first I have to consider what are these pleasant plants.Every man has his peculiar propensity, which, even after he is called by the grace of God, still clings closely to him, and as being that in which he naturally takes delight it is to him "a pleasant plant." This delight in what is not of God, this seeking of pleasure and happiness out of him, first broke forth in our nature in Paradise. Tempted by Satan, Eve, our first parent, was taken with the appearance of that tree of good and evil which she was forbidden to touch or taste. For we read that "when the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof and did eat." The lust of the flesh and the lust of the eye combined to seduce her from the path of innocency, and not only did she eat herself, but gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat Ge 3:6; and thus they plunged themselves and all their future race into sin and woe. Now we have all this propensity. Eve s blood runs in our veins. Our fingers itch to touch what Eve took; and as no tree of good and evil grows up before our eyes, we plant instead thereof our pleasant plants, and by them bring ourselves into misery and trouble. But look at this in a variety of instances.