(A New Year's Message)
by Alexander Whyte (1836-1921)
which the palmerworm hath left hath the locust eaten; and that
Dr. Pusey, the most literal, orthodox, and conservative of commentators, admits, in his great work on the Minor Prophets, that the prophet Joel opens his book with an enigma. The locust and the palmerworm and the caterpillar and the cankerworm, he is compelled to admit, are clearly some sort of sacred enigma. That extraordinarily learned and extraordinarily painstaking interpreter absolutely ransacks all the books of natural history and of Eastern travel determined to find Joel's literal locusts in some of those books. But without success. For, terrible as are the tales that travelers tell about the locust, harrowing as are the accounts they give of the doomed lands on which the locust descends, after all that, there are some things in Joel still more terrible and still more harrowing. In his determination to find actual locusts, and nothing but actual locusts on the inspired page, the aged and saintly scholar toils on till, at last, he is compelled to lay down his books both of science and of travel, and to confess that he is beaten. " No," he says, " it is clear to me now that they are not literal locusts. Whatever they are they are not literal locusts. There is something here, I see now, far worse than any locust.
There is some dark riddle of human misery here that neither our learned naturalists nor our Eastern travelers know everything about. But I think I know now," says the ripe old saint. " Joel's locusts, I see now and am sure, are not so far away as Arabia or Palestine. For all Joel's locusts, in all their kinds and in all their devastations, are in my own heart. Why did I go beating about among bound and barren books when this prophet, all the time, was but describing the sinfulness of my own heart?" Dr. Pusey went far wrong and he led his Church far wrong on some most essential matters, but he never went far wrong in his doctrines of sin and of holiness. And he was wholly right, as wholly right as the Holy Ghost and a holy life could make him, in his final and full explanation of this prophet's terrible locusts. "Let my readers take my word for it," he said. All this power and passion and repentance and remorse comes from a far deeper source than any plague of locusts. No! This is no locust. This is no deadly insect with shining wings. There is only one thing on the face of the whole earth that this can be. This is Sin!
The first thing that aroused the great scholar's suspicion that the prophet was setting a deep riddle to his readers was this terrible passage: "Hear this, ye old men, and give ear, all ye inhabitants of the land. Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation. That which the palmerworm hath left hath the locust eaten; and that which the locust hath left hath the cankerworm eaten; and that which the cankerworm hath left hath the caterpillar eaten." In all his immense apparatus of authors the old Hebrew Professor could find no breed of locust that ever came up, scourge after scourge, on any land, in that fashion. As far as he could read or hear, one descent of locusts is enough to make any land a desert. No. It clearly cannot be literal locusts. It is some deep riddle of desolation that the sorrowful prophet sets to us under the name of locusts.
And no sooner had the saintly scholar tried the key of sin than the prophet's sacred lock flew open; and his deep riddle was as clear as day. Try that key yourselves, my brethren. You have a great scholar's word for it that that key fits, to perfection, the most inward and intricate parts of Joel's inward and intricate prophecy. Well, try that same key upon yourselves. Try it on your own desolate life. Try it on desolation after desolation of your utterly desolate hfe. Try it year after year. Take sin after sin, sin after sin, and see if sin is not the true key of your desolate life.
The old men are challenged by this bold prophet to testify to the truth of what he says, to give their children and their children's children the benefit of their desolate and accumulated experience. Will you who are old men and wise do it ? You are not great pulpit expositors like Gregory, nor great scholars like Pusey; but, by this time, you must be as wise and well-experienced as any ancient or modern of them all in the things that turn the garden of youth into the wilderness of old age. If you have learned anything to be called learning, you must have surely learned this, how one sin succeeds another till you are what you are today. You could name to your children, as Joel challenged the old men of his day to name to their children; you could name your locust-sins in their genealogical order, in their successive descents, and in their complete desolation. Name them then, first to yourselves and then to your children; and it will be your salvation and theirs.
But all this time, locusts, let us be thankful, do not descend on our land like that. Our cold, hard, dark, uncongenial climate has its compensations. If our fields are not so full of milk and honey, and wine and oil, as the Land of Judah is, neither have we those terrible scourges that the prophet here handles with such terrible power. It is only the richest and sunniest lands that breed locusts; and it is not your dark, cold, hard, uncongenial hearts that suffer from an inward sinfulness that makes life to some men such a wilderness. Some men will not understand this, and will not have it. But there are other men to whom this will read as the most literal, and so to say, scientific truth, this out of this prophet's so marvellously constructed riddle. The land is as the Garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness: yea, and nothing shall escape them. Before their face the people shall be much pained and all faces shall gather blackness. They shall run like mighty men; they shall climb the wall like men of war; and they shall march every one on his ways, and they shall not break their ranks. They shall run to and fro in the city; they shall run upon the wall ; they shall climb up upon the houses; they shall enter in at the windows like a thief. And, because of them, is not our meat cut off before our eyes ? Yea, is not joy and gladness cut off from the house of our God ? The seed is rotten under the clod because of them. The garner is desolate. And the barns are broken down." Oh ! it is so true! So true, and so masterly! It is so true and so masterly that for the moment we forget our anguish in our sheer intellectual delight in it. That is prophecy! That is preaching! And there is a certain noble if bitter pleasure in seeing ourselves and our great enemy so divinely discovered, understood, and described. With such truth and power and passion and splendid eloquence is the multitudinousness, and the veracity, and the prolificness, and the ineradicableness of our sinfulness set forth in this prophet's tremendous pages.
But the word of the Lord came again to Joel the son of Pethuel. " Therefore, thus saith the Lord, turn ye even to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning. And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord. For He is gracious and merciful, and repenteth Him of the evil." " Rend your heart!" prophesied the son of Pethuel with all his power. "And so we shall" replied the old men of his day. "So we shall: and so we have already done!" said many of the inhabitants of the locust- cursed land. "If a 'rent heart ' is to be the arrest of God's judgments, and the return of His mercies, then let Him look and see if our hearts are not truly rent," witnessed the worshippers in Zion. " Let Him search us and try us," they said," if our hearts are not enough rent. "Rend our hearts, O Lord!" They proclaimed a fast and prayed. And so you do also, who are old men and wise men, and elders in Zion. " If we know ourselves," you say, " our hearts are indeed rent before God. We have nothing to offer to God or man out of the fields of our past lives, but a rent heart. That is the only redress or reparation and recompense we can offer to God or man. Blessed be God that a rent heart is His best harvest!" you exclaim.
"Who knoweth?" wonders the prophet, "who knoweth if He will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind Him?" And that both His prophet and His people might know, and might not be left in any doubt, the word of the Lord came again: "Fear not: but be glad and rejoice; for the Lord will do great things. I will do even this great thing, saith the Lord. I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten." Now, all parable apart, and in all plainness of speech, can any one tell us in what way the God of Israel, and our own God, does that ? Set the locusts aside for a little, and tell us in plain words that we can understand and remember, just how our past years can be recovered and restored : or, if that is impossible, then just what God can do and will do for us, if our heart is rent and laid at His feet.
Well, for one thing: Joel and his old men had reaped the fruit of a "rent heart." A harvest that we have reaped also, have we not, my brethren? Our hearts, like Joel's, have a rent in them so deep, so wide, so ragged, that nothing in this world, not all the milk and wine and honey of this world, will ever heal it. We have brought a heart out of our past years that no future years on earth can ever again make what it once was. We would not have it again what it once was, even if we could. For our heart is now rent loose from earth at its best, and gone on beforehand to heaven. It will not be healed and made whole and satisfied short of "His likeness." What fruit? Well, a "rent heart" to begin with: and with a "rent heart," a humbled heart, a heart full of humility, and self- abasement, and self-abhorrence, and self-abandonment. And a mind to dwell beside such a heart, and to minister to it. Even a spiritual and a heavenly mind. A mind and a heart for spiritual things: that is to say, for the things of God in nature, and in His word, and in Jesus Christ, and in grace, and in glory. A heart and a mind for the Cross of Christ, and for the throne of grace, and for the hopes and the foretastes of everlasting life. But Paul answers his own questions best. For these are his own noble words, that " godly sorrow for the past worketh repentance for the future not to be repented of. For, behold, this selfsame thing, what carefulness it wrought in you ! Yea, what clearing of yourselves. Yea, what indignation; yea, what fear; yea, what vehement desire. Yea, what zeal ; yea, what revenge." Or, take it in Andrewes's fine paraphrase: " Turn, O Lord, my mourning into dancing: my dreaming into earnestness: my many falls into so many clearings of myself : my guilt into indignation: my sin into fear: my transgression into vehement desire: my unrighteousness into zeal: and my pollution into revenge." Or, again, let Fenelon reply to Paul. "I downright rejoice in your desolation," he writes to a noble lady correspondent. " For God will teach you how to kill self out of your heart through disgust at this world, and through the desolation of your own life. As to grave faults of your past life they will turn to your certain good in the future if you make use of them for your humiliation. The true way to profit out of an evil past is to face it in all its hideousness, hoping for nothing better from ourselves in the time to come: while, at the same time, we do not cease to hope in God. And when He has stripped us bare of all strength and hope and self-resource, He will then begin to graft us on upon His Son Jesus Christ." That, in the plainest possible words, is some of the fruit we have ever with us, out of those years of which we are now ashamed. Those are some of the ways in which God restores to His people the years that the cankerworm hath eaten.
It has been the want of faith, my brethren, that has been at the root of all the blight and barrenness of our past years. And if God is to make His promise in the text good to you and me for this New Year, and for all our own future years, it will be by strengthening and fertilising our faith! When the root is weak or diseased, or when it has no deepness of earth, then any passing locust will soon kill the tree. But when the root is sound and strong and deep-seated and well-watered, the tree will blossom and bear fruit and will survive all the locusts that you can send up against it. Let us have faith, then, my brethren. Let us have, and in all things let us exercise, faith in God. Let us believe that He is, as we have never up to this year believed. Let us believe His Word. Let us read and meditate on His Word in a way we have never yet done. Our spiritual life and its fruitfulness comes and goes just as we read God's Word, and meditate on it in secret. Let us read, then, and meditate, read and pray, till His word dwells in us richly. And then, faith and all its fruits will grow in us, as they have always grown in those who had the true root within them, and who watered it with the water of life that flows in the channels of God's Word. And then, with the life of faith growing in that way in us, what new creatures we shall soon become! What new eyes will begin to open in our hearts! And what a new world on earth and in heaven our new eyes will begin to see!
And what years, even on earth, we shall yet have, as faith puts forth in us her perfect fruit! Believe! Believe ! Have faith! Have faith!, our Lord went about continually pleading with men. And when He found faith in Jew or Gentile how proud He was of it! What liberty and boldness He allowed it! And what rewards He put upon it!
And with a faith like that for the root of our future hfe, a holy love will henceforth be the sap, and the strength, and the fatness of our redeemed and remaining years. O, if God would but shed abroad His love in our hearts, we should soon forget all the famine and desolation of our past years! And He will! He says that He will, and we believe Him, Do we not, do you not, in these days feel something begun and going on within you as if a new beginning of faith and love was come to you? Do you not feel something, not unlike the breath of a spiritual spring, beginning to blow over your long desolation? I do. Do you not? O, let us all set open our hearts to the Spirit of God, and the buds will soon begin to burst and the birds will soon begin to build and to sing. Open your hearts to God, my brethren! Do not be afraid of God. Do not turn away from God. Where are you going? To whom can you go if you go away from. God? God is love. If God is anything, He is love. God is also light in darkness, and warmth in winter, and companionship and communion in desertion and loneliness, and goodness, and truth, and beauty, and sweetness, and more than mortal tongue can tell. It is well worth being the chief of sinners to have such a Saviour. It is well worth having all our years within us eaten up of locusts to have a message sent us like this message that God has sent us all this morning. And this message, as the Lord liveth, is no lie, but is the simple truth. It is no dream. It is no delusion. It is the surest, solidest, most matter-of-fact, most verifiable, most experimental, most immediate, most urgent, and most everlasting of all truths. Heaven and earth shall pass away. You will be present and will see and feel them passing away, but this message of this morning shall not pass till it is all fulfilled.
Rend your hearts, and who knoweth what He will do? Turn to the Lord and see. Gather up your lost life, and lay it down at His feet, and see. Say to Him that you have destroyed yourself, and see. Say to Him that all your hope is in His Word, and see. And then, tell ye your children what He hath done for your soul, and let your children tell their children, and their children to another generation.
Be ye glad, then, ye children of
Zion; and rejoice in the Lord your God. For I will restore to you the years
that the locust hath eaten, and the cankerworm, and the caterpillar and the palmerworm.
And ye shall eat in plenty, and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord
your God that hath dealt so wondrously with you. And ye shall know that I am in
the midst of my people Israel: and My people shall never be ashamed.
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