Pleasant Plants and Desperate Sorrow - Part 2
i A person may be called by the grace of God early in life, before the cares and anxieties of this present evil world may have come upon him; and being blessed and favoured with spirituality of mind, his affections may be strongly fixed upon the Lord, and be much set upon things above. He has then no pleasant plants to draw away his heart from heavenly things, and can thus serve the Lord without distraction. But after a time he sees good to change his situation in life, and to take to himself a partner of his sorrows and joys. None can object to this, for marriage is honourable in all. But what is often the result? That the wife or husband becomes the pleasant plant; the affections which were once fixed upon the Lord are in a measure withdrawn from him, and rest too much upon the partner of the bosom; and this becomes a snare which entangles the feet and often casts the believer down into carnality and death. But it may please the Lord, after a time, to crown the union with children as a heritage of the Lord, and then there may arise a succession of pleasant plants.
Now there is no objection to our loving our wives and children, for the Scripture bids husbands love their wives, and wives love their husbands. This is Scriptural precept and Gospel practice; but the Scripture has not bidden us set them as idols in the very bosom where God has erected his throne. If then, these pleasant plants draw away the affections from God, are they not snares and traps? Is it not full of danger to idolise wife and children? How the wives of Solomon drew him into idolatry and befooled the wisest of men! What a snare was Hagar even to Abraham, and Michal all but proved the ruin of David! What a snare too were the sons of Eli to their indulgent Father! And when Jacob set his Joseph, and David his Absalom as pleasant plants in their garden, what trouble and sorrow did they bring upon their heads! It would argue want of common affection if children were not pleasant plants to their parents. At this time of the year especially, do not parents love to see the olive branches round the Christmas table! But though the branches may hang round the table, the roots must not twine round the heart where Jesus should be supreme, lest they hide the beams of the Son of Righteousness, by surrounding his altar with their rank stem and overshadowing leaves.
ii But all who fear God have not wives or children, or may love them without idolatry, yet may they have pleasant plants no less dangerous to their soul s profit and peace. There is, for instance, your business, your farm, your profession, your daily occupation, and in carrying on this you are and should be diligent. "Not slothful in business" is a Gospel precept; but you may make it a pleasant plant far beyond the requirements of diligence and industry. I well know that in these times it is almost impossible for a man to pay his way who does not throw his whole mind into his business. But the whole mind is one thing and the whole heart another. It is through the avenue of these pursuits that sin comes in, and too often like a flood. You may take so much pleasure in your business or occupation that it may steal away well nigh every thought from God, and morning, noon, and night your heart may be in it so as to engross your affections, and fill you with darkness, barrenness, and deadness to everything that is spiritual and godly. And if your business increase, if your farm be prosperous, if money come rolling in, how easily you may make of this a Christmas tree! As you hang upon its branches the gains of the year, it may be to you the pleasantest plant that your eyes ever rested upon; and yet it may not be one of God s own planting. We shall see before we have done what may become of this pleasant plant that you have taken such care to plant and water, and which under such care is every day growing in your admiring eyes more and more vigourous and beautiful.
iii But all good men are not in business, or even if they are do not make it their idol; yet each may still have his natural propensity, which may be to him his pleasant plant. Take the figure naturally, how widely tastes differ even in such a matter as flowers in a garden! To some there is no flower like the rose; others see no beauty but in a geranium, and others say, "Give me the fuchsia." So each may have his pleasant plant to which he gives his chief thoughts and attention. I have my pleasant plant, and perhaps more than one, and you have yours. I believe if God had not called me by his grace, I should have spent my life in study, in reading books, acquiring languages, and devoting my whole mind to various branches of human knowledge, for there is scarcely one to which I have not a strong natural inclination. This was my pleasant plant which I cultivated up to the very time when eternal realities, impressed upon my mind by divine power, turned me from it to fall in love with the Rose of Sharon. But I still find that the pleasant plant, from long cultivation, has struck a deep root into my natural being, and I have carefully to guard against it to this day, or it would soon spread into the borders of my spiritual garden, and fill up those beds which should alone be occupied by the trees of frankincense planted in them by the blessed Spirit. Your pleasant plant may not be my pleasant plant, nor my pleasant plant your pleasant plant. My pleasant plant may look very ill in your eyes, and be considered rather a noxious weed than a blooming flower: and so your pleasant plant may in my eyes be but a thorn or a thistle, and better rooted up by your own hand than allowed to grow.
But time will not suffice to point out the various pleasant plants, which, when we forget the God of our salvation and become unmindful of the Rock of our strength, we set in our border. They may be innocent in themselves: they might be planted and cultivated in some back border where the sun might never shine upon them, and where we should rarely walk except by constraint. The sin is planting them in the Lord s borders placing them in the beds appropriated to the Owner of the garden. It is the forgetting the God of our salvation, who has done so great things for our souls, and setting up an idol in his place, that makes the sin so grievous. Thus the Lord remonstrates with his people by the prophet Jeremiah, and calls upon the very heavens to be astonished at their sin in this matter. "Be astonished, O ye heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid, be ye very desolate, saith the Lord. For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water." There was no sin in having cisterns, but the sin was in forsaking for them the fountain of living waters. Thus, then, whatever we love more than God; whatever be our besetment or propensity, if indulged and delighted in; whatever occupies our mind as an object of eager pursuit; whatever we give our late and early thoughts to; whatever through the day steals in, catches our affections, and draws away our heart from the Lord, so as to love it more than Him who is the altogether lovely- this is a pleasant plant that we have planted in God s border, and by doing so have in heart departed from the Lord our God.
But there is worse behind than this, a still more grievous, a still further departure from the Lord; for one sin is almost sure to draw on another, and the farther we go from the Lord, the worse we become. There is "a setting of strange slips." You know that in a garden there are beds open to view, and there are back places out of sight. In the beds and borders open to view, we have our geraniums, our roses, and our verbenas, with other many-hued flowers to please the eye. But then there are back borders in what we call the kitchen garden, where the cabbages and potatoes grow, besides out-of-the-way places under the hedge, or in the dark shrubbery, where henbane and hemlock, and poisonous weeds may thrive out of sight. So in the garden of the soul, there are the "pleasant plants" open to view, which we are not ashamed that our friends should see, and there are "the strange slips" set in the back borders, which we are glad enough to put out of sight.
But why are these out of sight productions, called "strange?" The word "strange" in Scripture often means what is ungodly, and carries with it the idea of wickedness. The reason why it bears this signification arose from the peculiar position of the children of Israel. They were a nation separated unto the Lord from every other. They were God s peculiar people, consecrated by external covenant, and therefore God said to them, "Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people; for all the earth is mine, and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation." Ex 19:5,6 Therefore, all foreign customs, foreign dresses, and foreign ways were ungodly, as breaking down that peculiar relationship in which they stood as a separate people to God. For this reason, the word "strange" came to signify anything unholy or ungodly. Thus, Nadab and Abihu "offered strange fire before the Lord" Le 10:1; that is, fire which had not been kindled by God himself upon the altar. So we read of "strange incense" Ex 30:9; of "a strange vine" Jer 2:21; of "strange wives" Ezr 10:2; and of "strange women, whose mouth is a deep pit." Pr 22:14 In this sense, therefore, "strange slips" mean any thing set in the Lord s garden of an ungodly nature-what, in one word, we may term poisonous plants.
But the question arises at once in your mind, "Can any one who really and truly fears God ever set strange slips in his garden?" Let me answer this question by another. Are there no back borders? Are there no hedgebanks or ditches, no secret corners and low shrubberies out of sight, and yet still a part of the garden? Are there no dark corners, no hidden spots in your heart, in which you have at various times set strange slips; and have set them perhaps by night, as being ashamed of doing so in open day? If you say, "No; my garden may have a few weeds in it; but I have never been so base as to set poisonous plants in the back borders;" either your case is singular, or what is more probable, you have never taken a thorough and complete view of the garden; you have overlooked those hidden spots of your heart that the eye of God scans, or may be so ignorant as not to know a weed from a flower. Does not our text address itself to the people of God? For to whom else is he "the God of their salvation," and to whom else is Jesus "the Rock of their strength?" How, too, can they "forget" him, or be "unmindful" of him who never was in their hearts? Thus we have God s own testimony that even those who fear his great and glorious name, do, when they forget him, plant their pleasant plants and set their strange slips.
And has conscience no voice in your bosom here? Is there no secret sin that you want to indulge- no base lust: no filthy desire; no vile passion; no craving after iniquity? Are these vile weeds always torn up the moment that they peep out of the soil? To let them grow is the same thing as to set them; for where is the difference between letting a noxious weed grow when it might be pulled up and planting another by its side? Every time, then, that you secretly indulge the movement of any sin, you are setting a strange slip, fostering a poisonous plant in the garden of God.
But again, if free from such sins as these, have you no self-righteousness shooting and growing up in your heart: Are there no liftings up of Pharisaic pride? Do you never think, if not say, "Stand by thyself; I am holier than thou?" Are you never pleased with your prayers and performances; with your good feelings and intentions? Do you never look with complacency upon a consistent life, and not having been entangled like so many others in slips and falls? What is this but a strange slip, for I am sure that the blessed Spirit never planted it in your heart?
Have you never feelings of enmity against the saints of God? Have you no malice, no suspicion, no jealousy, no envy, no unkind thoughts, no vile workings against those whom you can hardly deny to be the children of God, if any strife or division has broken out between you and them; or if they have given you real or supposed cause of offence? Are not these strange slips? And where have you set them? Out of sight; under the hedge behind the shrubbery. You can show your roses, geraniums, and verbenas, and even be pleased that they should be admired; but you won t show the dark hemlock, the stinking henbane, the pricking brier, the stinging nettle, all of which are growing so strongly, and tendered and nurtured so secretly, yet so carefully, in this back-border of yours. But you will say, "I do not cultivate them. I know they are there; but I do not foster them." Why then do you not pull them up; why do you suffer them to grow unchecked? But you must be conscious that often you even do cultivate them by indulging them as much as you dare.
But these strange slips are so many that I cannot enumerate them. I must, therefore, take them as they grow, thick and rank in the border. Have you, then, no pride, no self-exaltation, no presumption, no vain confidence, no unbelief and infidelity, no hardness, carelessness, recklessness, darkness, and deadness of spirit? Have you made your heart wholly clean? Can you stand before God, the holy, heart-searching Jehovah, and say that your hands, eyes, ears, lips, and every member of your body are free from iniquity? These, then, are the strange slips that you have been planting in the back borders. We are all guilty here. I do not stand before you as if I were free from iniquity and sin. I know what my heart is, and I know that I have, when left to myself, been verily guilty in this matter; for I have again and again planted pleasant plants and set strange slips. Such, too, should I plant and set every day of my life, except as kept back and held up by the mighty power of God. Nay, I believe that every man that knows his own heart must with me plead guilty here, for none are altogether free from these charges: and he that knows most of himself will acknowledge that he thus sins, and that just in proportion as he forgets the God of his salvation and is unmindful of the Rock of his strength.
III.-But it is time to pass on to our next point, which is the temporary success which seems to crown 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."
I wish to observe that all the way through the Lord is speaking as if judicially. When, then, he says, "Therefore shalt thou plant pleasant plants, and shall set it with strange slips," it is not that he either compels his people to plant or approves of their setting, but denounces against them this as the threatened consequence and punishment of their departing from him. In a similar way, when he says "In the day shalt thou make thy plant to grow," he neither compels nor commends such a course, but predicts it as the judicial result. Thus for a time the Lord seemingly winks at all these evils; nay more, he allows them a season of passing prosperity; for having lost the light of his countenance, the planters and setters do not seem to be conscious of the evil of which they are guilty. Their eyes have become so blinded, their hearts so hardened, and their judgment so obscured by forgetting the God of their salvation and being unmindful of the Rock of their strength, that they have lost in good measure that tenderness of conscience which would have shown them the snares in which they were being entangled and the temptations by which they were being overcome.
But such, unhappily, is the power of sin, the strength of temptation, and the subtlety of Satan, that a man may be grievously entangled in many evil courses, or be much given up to carelessness and carnality, and yet scarcely see or feel, from sheer stupor of mind and callousness of conscience, into what a state of backsliding and alienation of heart from God he has fallen. Thus Ephraim is said to have been "broken in judgment"; and "strangers" are declared to "have devoured his strength and he knew it not; yea, grey hairs were here and there upon him and he knew not." Ho 7:9 This was the reward and the consequence of his backsliding. He had left God, and therefore for a time God left him. When a man falls into this sad state of soul, "in the day he makes his plant to grow, and in the morning he makes his seed to flourish."
Have you not done this? and have you not been very much pleased when you have got your plant to grow? When you have a pleasant wife, or an affectionate husband, healthy and handsome children, a comfortable house, good furniture, with money coming in so as to afford you every comfort and indulgence consistent with your situation in life; when, too, you can look around you and see all these pleasant plants before your eyes, and that you have been successful not only in planting them but in making them to grow, do you not feel very comfortable, and indulge at times in no small amount of self-complacency that such a measure of success and prosperity attend you? If you are in business, are you not very pleased if a growing number of customers come to your shop: and if your business should increase, your profits be augmented, and if day by day you should become better off in worldly circumstances, are you not tempted to increase your establishment, and thus make your pleasant plant to grow larger and larger and look handsomer and handsomer?
As, then, you look sometimes at your prospects, are you not tempted to think and say, "How pleasant everything is around me! What a wonder-working God he is to give me all this prosperity! I wonder there is so much poverty and discontent in the world! Why are not people more industrious and happy?" Or say that you are a farmer, and that circumstances not this year, I fear, but there are times when they are so are flourishing and things looking up. Is there not such a thing as standing upon a hill and looking around with complacency, "Here I have a good farm, good land, good crops, a good landlord, and I hope to leave all this to my son by and by?" Or if not in business, you may still look round you and say, "What an excellent wife I have, or good husband, what a pleasant home, and how much I am generally respected! I have health and strength and every worldly comfort, and how happy and pleasant things seem to be just now!" Now is not this happy, easy life, this health and success, just what your carnal heart loves? Is not this prosperous and comfortable state just the very thing that suits your natural mind?
But this is the very thing upon which God puts his finger, in the text. This is the very carnal ease, to which he is giving you up, that you may one day rue its miserable consequences. This is in the day making your plant to grow; for you keep watering your plant; you want it to grow larger and larger, till it overtop all your neighbour s trees. It is nothing to you, that the fowls of the air rest in its branches, so long as your tree bears more abundant crops of fruit. Do you want your pleasant plant cut down, or even a single branch lopped off? No. You don t want any disappointment, any vexatious law-suit, any secret drain upon your gains, any heavy losses, any short crops, failing business, bad debts, an uncomfortable home, sickly children, an invalid wife, or a dying husband. That would be indeed a reverse; that would be death to your pleasant plant; that would be a worm at the root of your gourd. You want no path of trial and tribulation, but to sit under your spreading fig tree. You want still to enjoy a strong, healthy body, plenty of food and raiment, money at command, everything pleasant at home, everything prosperous in business, and everything successful in life.
And so you keep watering, watering, watering your pleasant plant, and the more you can make it grow, and the more you can bring it up in the sun, and the better and healthier it looks, the more you are pleased. The stronger the root, the longer the stem, the larger the leaves, and the more abundant the fruit, the more you admire the pleasant plant which you have set in your garden. Alas! You little care what becomes of the myrrh and aloes, and all the chief spices which this pleasant plant of yours has so overgrown, so starved, so stunted, and so overshadowed, till all their scent is gone, and they themselves scarcely seen. The Lord seems to let you go on; and you may even so forget the God of your salvation, and be so unmindful of the Rock of your strength-that smitten Rock who sweat blood and agonised on the cross to save your soul-that you may take all this prosperity as a mark in your favour, and put God s providences in the place of God s graces.
But there is worse even than this, for there is making your seed to flourish; for this seed is "the strange slips" before spoken of as set by your own hand in the back borders. It is bad enough to be ever watering your pleasant plant and making it grow, but it is far worse to make the "strange slip" to flourish. But even this you do. Let me appeal to your conscience. Have you never nurtured your pride, your self-righteousness, your vain confidence? Have you never swathed and swaddled your bosom idol, as misshapen and ugly a god as ever Hindoo worshipped? Have you never fed your jealousy, your enmity, your suspicion, your revengeful thoughts, your unkind feelings, and the flame that has burnt in your bosom against an enemy, or even against a brother? Have you not nurtured these devilish feelings, and done all that you could to make them flourish, thinking all the time, perhaps, what a wonderful Christian you were, while God looked at all this abomination, and hated what he saw going on?
Have you not built your airy castles, planted visionary paradises, and thought what you would do and how you would act, if ever they were realised? Though you may not have had money or opportunity to build a new house, or even leave your old one; yet you have built a castle every day, though it has been a castle in the air; and though you may not have an inch of ground to call your own, you have had a garden within, which you have planted with all care, and watered morning and evening. O, if a man does but take a faithful view of his own heart, of what is continually passing in his own mind, he will not think this an overdrawn picture! He will not start back with horror from the portrait, and cry out "What base wretch are you describing? Can such a man live and move, and yet have the fear of God in his heart?" If I dip my brush into God s own book and use no other colours than are spread on God s own palette, you must not say I paint man too black; and if I dip it also into my own heart, I believe that from mine I can pretty well describe yours. Instead of finding fault with my portrait, you had better view it as your own; you had better first look into your own garden and examine the pleasant plants and the strange slips, and then you will be a better judge whether it be wholly a paradise of God s planting, or whether many a rank weed does not grow there which his hand never set in its beds and borders.
IV.-But we now come to our fourth and last point, which is the harvest reaped from all this planting and setting. This of course is the grand, the expected, and long-looked for consummation of the whole. Is not the farmer ever fixing his eye upon his harvest? What else is to pay him for all his cost and trouble? This with him is the crowning of the year. So you all have your harvest. You are not, it is true, all of you farmers; but you have all a harvest in prospect or in possession; for the harvest, in our text, is the success of your pleasant plants, and the crop which you should reap from your strange slips.
The harvest may at present be but in your own brain-merely in that busy, active, speculating imagination of yours which would fain have, not only one harvest in a year, but a harvest every month. You have not been engaged all this time in planting pleasant plants and setting strange slips, without expecting you are to get something from it. And what you are to get from it is to be your "harvest"-a harvest of pleasure, of enjoyment, of delight, of profit, or of something of which you can say, "I shall fill my barns with it; and when I have filled my barns and there bestowed all my fruits and my goods, I shall say to my soul, Take thine ease; eat, drink, and be merry."
But God s thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are his ways our ways; he has other thoughts concerning the harvest than what you have been dreaming of, and other intentions respecting it than those which you have been speculating upon, and in prospect almost insured. "But the harvest shall be a heap in the day of grief and of desperate sorrow."
These words seem this year to have been literally fulfilled. I heard a cry this autumn which I hope I shall never hear again, and that some of you young people may never hear for the whole of your lives; for I heard the farming boys with the last load of corn cry "Harvest home" in the month of November, and this may not occur again for another century. And as to the harvest being "a heap," I saw with my own eyes acres of mown barley lying in the fields in October, that seemed to my unpractised gaze more fit for the dunghill than to be gathered into the rick. So literally and naturally, through the rainy season, the harvest to many a farmer has been but "a heap;" and to those already crushed by preceding bad times and heavy losses, instead of finding in it a means of extrication, it has been but a "day of grief and of desperate sorrow."
But view it spiritually, for I speak to spiritual people, and desire, as a servant of the Lord, to handle the subject with spiritual fingers. Where then is the harvest which you have been expecting to reap from your pleasant plants and strange slips? Has it not been to you spiritually what the harvest has been literally to many a poor farmer this year, -ruined by incessant rains, swept away by floods, or tossed into a heap, and carried away to the dunghill?
Where are your "pleasant plants" that you planted years ago? Where the "strange slips" that you watered and cultivated and took such care of? What has been the harvest? You who married early in life, have things turned out just as you expected? You expected to go down to the grave without trouble in your families, sickness in your houses, affliction in your bodies, poverty in your circumstances, or those deep and heavy trials that have made all your harvest to be "a heap;" a heap of wet straw, instead of ripe and rich and full ears.
O, the wisdom, and may I not add, the goodness and mercy of a wonder-working God, to confound all our prospects, pull down our airy castles, root up our pleasant plants and strange slips, and with his own fingers throw them into a heap, and make them fit only for the dunghill! How many bosom idols you have indulged; how many sins you have fostered; how much pride you have nursed; how many envious suspicions, cruel jealousies, and bitter feelings have you warmed in your bosom! What care you have taken of your pleasant plants! How you have in winter put a hand-glass over them to keep the frost out, and watered them in summer lest they should die of drought! Nor have you taken less care of your strange slips! How often and how long you have harboured unkindly feelings against some offending brother, and nursed your wrath to keep it warm!
But let us see in what way the harvest is made "a heap." The Lord works in various ways, but they all tend to the same end. Thus He may lay you upon a sick bed, bring trouble and distress into your soul, set before you your grievous backslidings, and lay the guilt of them so upon your conscience as almost to sink you into despair. The day of reckoning is now come, when the Lord brings to light the secret thoughts of the heart, and lays His chastening hand upon the backslider, filling him with his own ways. Where, and what is now your harvest? What has become now of your pleasant plants that you took such delight in, and those strange slips that you cultivated with such care? Why, nothing but a heap.
We reap what we sow. "If we sow to the flesh, of the flesh we reap corruption." Here is the end of all idols; here is the termination of all prospects of happiness independent of God. Here is the fruit of carnal ease, worldly security, spiritual pride, towering presumption, vain confidence, thinking highly of ourselves, and despising others. Look at that poor backslider, lying upon a sick bed, with the frowns of God in his soul, Jesus absent, Satan present, faith at its lowest ebb, hope scarcely lifting up its head, and love dwindled down to the lowest spark. See how he loathes what he has loved; listen to his almost despairing language of self-condemnation, "O that I had lived more in the fear of God, had walked more circumspectly and uprightly, had watched against bosom sins, mortified my lusts, crucified the flesh with its affections, not indulged every vain thought, nor nurtured every bad passion. O that I had walked, and spoke, and lived, and acted more as becometh the Gospel, and the profession which I made, and sought more to adorn the doctrine of God in all things."
Is not this now with him "the day of grief and of desperate sorrow?" And so it will be with us, if we have been planting pleasant plants and setting strange slips, and been suffered of God to do so, so as to have walked in a path of ease and carnal security. Then, indeed, shall we see what backsliders we have been, what base wretches, when the harvest lies before our eyes "a heap," only fit for the dunghill, and we mourn before the Lord in "the day of grief and desperate sorrow."
But let me not leave you mourning here. Let me show you mercy and grace mingled with, and shining through all this. Is not God rich in mercy, in bringing all this secret backsliding to light, in making the harvest to be a heap? Is it not still His gracious hand made manifest, in bringing sickness or painful bereavements into your families, visiting you with heavy trials and painful afflictions, and by these timely chastisements, to make you feel, and that deeply, the miserable consequence of not walking more in His fear, and thus make you reap the bitter fruit of backsliding? Is not all this not in wrath, but in mercy? Is it not for the good of your soul, that you may not go on adding sin to sin and iniquity to iniquity, and die at last under the wrath of God? For by these things God brings his erring, backsliding children to their senses; and thus stops them before they have altogether given up God and godliness.
But as He afflicts for their good, and only takes away one harvest to give another, one that shall endure for ever and ever in His eternal kingdom, He will bring in due time a word of consolation to lift up their drooping spirit, and to show them that notwithstanding all their sins, he is still "the God of their salvation," and that Jesus is still "the Rock of their strength." Thus by these things men live, and in all these things is the life of their spirit. By these mingled dealings of judgment and mercy, the rod and kiss, the frown and smile, we learn to loathe ourselves, so as to remember and be confounded and never open our mouths any more because of our shame when he is pacified towards us for all that we have done, saith the Lord. Eze 16:63Thus we learn to hate our own folly and our own sin, and to see and feel more and more the superaboundings of grace over all the aboundings of our iniquity. As, then, we are blessed with a feeling sense of the Lord s goodness and mercy in not dealing with us after our sins nor rewarding us after our iniquities, we shall learn to cleave to Him more closely with purpose of heart. Thus, though there is no excuse for us, for we must still plead guilty, all these varied dealings in the hands of God eventually work for our spiritual good: and the effect ever will be and must be to humble the sinner in the dust, and to crown Jesus Lord of all.