The Gospel in Ezekiel
Chapter 4 Man Suffering.

Wherefore I poured my fury upon them; and I scattered them among the heathen, and they were dispersed through the countries: According to their way, and according to their doings, I judged them.
EZEKIEL 36: 18, 19.

IT appears at first sight a very easy thing to say what constitutes a plant or animal. It is not so. There are myriads of living creatures that occupy the debateable ground between the vegetable and animal kingdoms; nor have naturalists yet determined on which side of the border to assign them a place, whether to rank them among plants or animals. What is man? it seems an easy thing also to answer that question; yet I am not sure that even at this day, we have any correct definition which, distinguishing him on the one hand from the angelic race, and on the other hand from the higher orders of inferior creatures, is at once brief and cornprehensive.
Now, if we have such difficulty in defining even ourselves, or those objects that, being patent to the senses, may be made the subject of searching and prolonged experiment, is it wonderful that, when we rise above his works to their Maker, from things finite to things infinite, it should be found much easier to ask than to answer the question, What is God. The telescope by which we hold converse with the stars, the microscope which unveils the secrets of nature, the crucible of the chemist, the knife of the anatomist, the reflective faculties of the philosopher, all the common instruments of science avail not here. On the threshold of that impenetrable mystery, a voice arrests our steps. From out the clouds and darkness that are round about God's throne, the question comes, Who can by searching find out God, who can find out the Almighty to perfection?
Divines, notwithstanding, have ventured on a definition of God. According to the Catechism of the Westminster Assembly, "God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth." A very comprehensive and right noble definition, no doubt; yet did it never strike you as strange, that there is no mention of love here? This appears a very remarkable omission; an omission as remarkable as if an orator, who undertook to describe the firmament, left out the sun, or an artist, in painting the human face, made it sightless, and gave no place on the canvas to those beaming eyes which impart to the countenance its life and expression.
Why did an assembly, for piety, learning, and talents, the greatest, perhaps, that ever met in England, or anywhere else, in that catalogue of the divine attributes assign no place to love? Unless we are to understand the term goodness as comprehending love, the omission may be thus explained and illustrated: Take a globe, and observing their natural order, lay upon its surface the different hues of the rainbow; give it a rapid motion around its axis; and now the blue, red, yellow, and other colours vanish. As if by magic, the whirling sphere instantly changes into purest white, presenting to our eyes a visible, and to our understanding a palpable proof that the sunbeam is not a simple, but a compound body; a thread spun of various rays, which, when blended into one, form what we call light. And, may it not be, that these divines make no distinct mention of love, just because they held that as all the separate colours blended together form light, so all the attributes acting together make love; and that thus, because God is just, wise, powerful, holy, good, and true, of necessity, therefore, and in the express words of John, God is love. This had been John's answer to the question, What is God.
It may be said, that objects take a colour from the eyes that look at them. That is true. The very sun, as well as sky, and sea, and mountains, appear yellow to the jaundiced eye; the brightest prospect wears an air of gloom to a gloomy mind; a sunny temper gilds the edges of life's blackest cloud, and flings a path of light across its stormiest sea; contentment sits down to a crust of bread and a cup of water, and gives God thanks; and the plainest face looks beautiful in the eyes of fond affection. Now it may be thought, that as to John's loving eye his heavenly Father seemed so loving and so lovely, it was very natural for him to give the colour of his own eyes to this divine object, and say, God is love. But it is to be remembered, that when he gave this shortest, sweetest definition of the Divine Being, he was not engaged in painting objects only as they appeared to him. The writer was a pen in the hand of inspiration. The speaker, like the keys of a musical instrument, sounded to the movements of another's will, the touch of another's finger. One of the holy men of old, who spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost, it was not he, but God himself, who thus described and defined himself, God is love.
Assuming then that God is love, it may be asked, how does that harmonise with the text? How is it to be reconciled with words whereby God represents himself as pouring down his fury like a thunder shower, and, in a storm of indignation, scattering his people as worthless chaff blown away upon the wind. How, it may be asked, does such language consist with God's love and mercy?
Now, there is no greater mistake than to suppose that the divine Being, as a God of justice and a God of mercy, stands in antagonism to himself. Observe, I pray you, that it is not mercy but injustice, which is irreconcilable with justice, and that it is cruelty, not justice, that stands opposed to mercy. These attributes of Jehovah are not contrary the one to the other, as are light and darkness, fire and water, truth and falsehood, right and wrong. No. Like two separate streams which unite their waters to form a common river, justice and mercy are combined in the covenant of redemption. Like the two cherubims whose outstretched wings met above the ark, or like the two devout and holy men who drew the nails from Christ's body, and bore the sacred burden to the grave, or like the two angels who received it in charge, and, seated like mourners within the sepulchre, the one at the head, the other at the feet, kept silent watch over the precious treasure, justice and mercy are associated in the work of Christ. They are the supporters of the shield on which the cross is emblazoned. They sustain the arms of our heavenly advocate. They form the two solid, immovable, and eternal pillars of the Mediator's throne. On Calvary, mercy and truth meet together, righteousness and peace kiss each other.
These remarks may prepare us for entering with advantage on the solemn subject of God's punitive justice. Yet, ere we open the prison, and look down into the pit, I would further bespeak your candid and tender consideration of this affecting and most awful subject, by remarking

I. That God is slow to punish.

He does punish; he shall punish; with reverence be it spoken, he must punish. Yet no hand of clock goes so slowly as his hand of vengeance. He executeth not judgment speedily against the workers of iniquity. Of that blessed truth, the world, this city, and this church, are witnesses; each and all, speaker and hearer, are living witnesses. It is too common to overlook this fact; and, ignoring the kindness, patience, longsuffering, and warnings which precede the punishment, we are too apt to give our exclusive attention to the punishment itself. Divine kindness is impressed on all God's works; even the lion growls before he leaps, and before the snake attempts to strike she springs her rattle.
Look, for example, on the catastrophe of the Deluge. And let not our attention be so engrossed by its dread and awful character, as to overlook all that preceded it, and see nothing but the flood and its devouring waters.
The waters rise till rivers swell into lakes, and lakes become seas, and the sea stretches out her arms along fertile plains to seize their flying population. Still the waters rise; and now mingled with beasts that terror has tamed, men climb to the mountain tops, with the flood roaring at their heels. Still the waters rise; and now each summit stands above them like a separate and sea-girt isle. Still the waters rise ; and, crowding closer on the narrow spaces of lessening hill-tops, men and beasts fight for standing-room. Still the thunders roar, and the lightnings flash, and the rains descend, and the waters rise, till the last survivor of the shrieking crowd is washed off, and the head of the highest Alp goes down beneath the wave. Now the waters rise no more. God's servant has done his work. He rests from his labours; and, all land drowned, all life destroyed, an awful silence reigning and a shoreless ocean rolling, Death for once has nothing to do, but ride in triumph on the top of some giant billow, which, meeting no coast, no continent, no Alp, no Andes against which to break, sweeps round and round the world.
We stand aghast at the scene; and as the corpses of gentle children and sweet infants float by, we exclaim, Hath God forgotten to be gracious? Hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies? No; assuredly not. Where, then, is his mercy? Look here; behold this ark, as steered by an invisible hand, she comes dimly through the gloom. Lonely ship on a shoreless ocean, she carries mercy, on board. She holds the costliest freight that ever sailed the sea. The germs of the church are there—the children of the old world, and the fathers of the new. Suddenly, amid the awful gloom, as she drifts over that dead and silent sea, a grating noise is heard. Her keel has grounded on the top of Ararat. The door is opened; and beneath the sign of the olive branch, her tenants come forth from their baptismal burial, like life from the dead, or like souls which have passed from a state of nature into the light and liberty of grace, or like the saints when they shall rise at the summons of the trumpet to behold a new heaven and a new earth, and see the sign which these "grey fathers" hailed encircling a head that was crowned with thorns.
Nor is this all. Our heavenly Father's character is dear to us; and therefore I must remind you that ere mercy flew, like the dove, to that welcome asylum, she had swept the wide world with her wings. Were there but eight saved, only eight? There were thousands, millions sought. Nor is it doing justice to God to forget how long a period of patience, and preaching, and warning, and compassion, preceded that dreadful deluge. Long before the lightning flashed from angry heavens, or thunders rolled along dissolving skies, or the clouds rained down death, or the solid floor of this earth, under the prodigious agencies at work, broke up, like the deck of a leaking ship, and the waters rushed from below to meet the waters from above, and sink a guilty world, long before the time when the ark floated away by town and tower, and those crowded hill-tops, where frantic groups were clustered, and amid prayers and curses, and shrieks, and shouts, hung out their signals of distress, very long before this, God had been calling an impenitent world to repentance. Had they no warning in Noah s preaching? Was there nothing to alarm their fears in the sight of the ark as storey rose upon storey? not enough in the very sound of those ceaseless hammers to waken all but the dead? It was not till Mercy's arm grew weary, as she rang the warning bell, that, to use the words of my text, God poured out his fury upon them. I appeal to the story of this awful judgment. True, for forty days it rained incessantly, and for one hundred and fifty days more the waters prevailed on the earth; but while the period of God's justice is reckoned by days, the period of his long-suffering was drawn out into years. There was a truce of one hundred and twenty years between the first stroke of the bell and the first crash of the thunder. Noah grew grey preaching repentance. The ark stood useless for years, a huge laughing-stock for the scoffer's wit. Covered with the marks of age, it covered its builders with the contempt of the world; and many a bitter sneer had these men to bear, as, pointing to the serene heavens above and an empty ark below, the ungodly asked, Where is the promise of his coming? Most patient God! Then, as now, thou wert slow to punish, long suffering and of great mercy.
As that catastrophe and many other judgments also prove, God is slow to anger. He does pour out his fury; but his indignation is the volcano that groans loud and long before it discharges the elements of destruction and pours its fiery lavas on the vineyards at its feet. Where, when God s anger has burned hottest, was it ever known that judgment trode on the heels of sin? A period always intervenes; room is given for remonstrance on his part, and for repentance upon ours. The stroke of judgment is like the lightning flash, irresistible, fatal; it kills,- kills in the twinkling of an eye. But the clouds from which it leaps are slow to gather; they thicken by degrees: and he must be intensely engaged with the pleasures, or engrossed in the business of the world, whom the flash and peal surprise. The mustering clouds, the deepening gloom, the still and sultry air, the awful silence, the big pattering rain-drops, these reveal his danger to the traveller; and warn him away from river, road, or hill, to the nearest shelter. And, heeded or unheeded, many are the warnings you get from God. As these prove, he has no pleasure in the death of the wicked; he is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. No man ever yet went to hell, but trampling under foot ten thousand warnings, and ten times ten thousand mercies.
Whatever injustice men may do themselves, however recklessly they may cast away salvation and their souls, I demand justice for him whose ambassador I am, for these mysteries of salvation of which I am a steward. No doubt God says, I poured. out my fury upon them; but when was this done? Not till divine patience was exhausted, and a succession of servants had been commissioned to warn, to preach, and to plead with them. Remember the words of a wQeping Saviour, as he looked on the city from the crest of Olivet, 0, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Has language words more tender or pathetic than these? Or than those, in which God pours forth his affection for this very people, When Israel was a child, then I loved him: I taught Ephraim also to go: taking them by their arms, I drew them with cords of a man, with bonds of love? This language carries us into the tenderest scenes of domestic life. It reminds me of a mother, who, unbosoming all her grief, and, telling how one sweet child had been blighted in the bud, and how another had gone astray from the paths of virtue, and how all the flowers of her cottage home had withered away, cried, as she bitterly looked back on departed joys, and wept, and wrung her hands, These were happy days, when they were children at my knee. Like a father who hangs over some unworthy son, and, while his heart is torn by contending emotions, hesitates what to do, whether once and for ever to dismiss him, or to give him another trial, it is most touching to see God bending over sinners, and this flood of pathos bursting from his heart, How shall I give thee up, Ephraim? how shall I deliver thee, Israel? How shall I make thee as Admah? how shall I set thee as Zeboim? Mine heart is turned within me; my repentings are kindled together. I will not execute the fierceness of mine anger, I will not return to destroy Ephraim: for I am God and not man.
Let us do the same justice to our Father in heaven that we would render to an earthly parent. Would it he doing a father justice to look at him only when the rod is raised in his hand, and, though the trembling lip, and weeping eyes, and choked utterance of his culprit boy, and a fond mother's intercession, all plead with him to spare, he refuses, firmly refuses? In this, how stern he looks! But before you can know that father, or judge his heart aright, you should know how often ere this the offence had been forgiven; you should have heard with what tender affection he had warned that child; above all, you should have stood at his closet door, and listened when he pleaded with God on behalf of an erring son. Justice to him also requires, that you should have seen with what slow and lingering steps he went for the rod, the trembling of his hand, and how, with tears streaming from his eyes, he raised them to heaven and sought strength to inflict a punishment which, could it serve the purpose, he would a hundred times rather bear than inflict.
When Absalom, nursing his rage for months, and coolly planning an atrocious murder, slew his brother, David was so shocked, struck with such horror at the crime, that, although he permitted the assassin to return to Jerusalem, for two whole years he refused to see him. His son, his eldest son, his favourite son, he would hold no intercourse with Absalom, nor speak to him, nor look on him. Would it be just to David to confine our attention to this? Under that clouded brow, and averted eye, and cold demeanour, and stern aspect, what a heart! Goaded on by ambition, this guilty man aims his next blow at a father's life; and falls. Ah, then how are the fountains of the great deep opened! what a burst of feeling! What is it now to David that the battle is won, his enemies are crushed, his crown is safe, his throne secure? Absalom is slain! Oh my son Absalom! my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, Oh Absalom, my son, my son! And, would we do our heavenly Father justice, we must look on Calvary as well as on Eden. God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have ever lasting life. His Son indeed does not go up and down heaven, weeping, wringing his hands, and, to the amazement of silent angels, crying, Would God I had died for man! A more amazing spectacle is here. He turns his back on heaven; he leaves the bosom and happy fellowship of his Father; he bares his own innocent breast to the sword; and in the depths of a love never to be fathomed, he dies on that accursed tree, "the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God!"
Through this vestibule of love, mercy, and long-suffering, we have thought it well to introduce you to the scenes of God's punitive justice. It is on iron, softened by the glowing fire, that impressions are best made and left; and only expecting good when the terrible is associated with the tender, we have thought it well to show you how slow God is to smite, and how swift he is to save. Fast fly the wings of mercy. Slow goes the hand of judgment; like the shadow on the sun-dial, though ever advancing, it creeps onwards with a motion all but imperceptible. Still let sinners stand in awe. Let it never be forgotten, that although God's patience is lasting, it is not everlasting. The hand of justice has not stopped; though imperceptibly, it steadily advances; by and by it reaches the tenth, eleventh, twelfth hour ; and now the bell strikes. Then, unless you have fled to Christ, the blow which was so slow to fall, shall descend on the head of impenitence with accumulated force.
Observe -

II. How he punished his ancient people.

This is illustrated in many portions of Scripture. For example, "Now, because ye have done all these works, saith the Lord, and I spake unto you, rising up early and speaking, but ye heard not; and I called you, but ye answered not; therefore will I do unto this house which is called by my name, wherein ye trust, and unto the place which I gave to you and to your fathers, as I have done to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of my sight, as I have cast out all your brethren, even the whole seed of Ephraim Therefore pray not thou for this people, neither lift up cry nor prayer for them, neither make intercession to me; for I will not hear thee - the carcasses of this people shall be meat for the fowls of the heaven, and for the beasts of the earth and none shall fray them away. Then will I cause to cease from the cities of Judab, and from the streets of Jerusalem, the voice of mirth, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride; for the land shall be desolate - and death shall be chosen rather than life by all the residue of them that remain of this evil family, which remain in all the places whither I have driven them, saith the Lord of Hosts- I will surely consume them, saith the Lord; there shall be no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig- tree, and the leaf shall fade; and the things that I have given them shall pass away from them".
The Lord our God hath put us to silence, and given us water of gall to drink, because we have sinned against the Lord. "We looked for peace, but no good came; and for a time of health, and behold trouble! The snorting of his horses was heard from Dan ; the whole land trembled at the sound of the neighing of his strong ones: for they are come and have devoured the land, and all that is in it - the city, and those that dwell therein. The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved. I am black; astonishment hath taken hold on me. Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?"
These were the children of Abraham, beloved for the father's sake, the honoured custodiers of divine truth; God's chosen people, through whose line and lineage his Son was to appear. How solemn, then, and how appropriate, the question, If they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry? Look at Judah sitting amid the ruins of Jerusalem, her temple without a worshipper, her silent streets choked with the dead: look at that bound, weeping, bleeding remnant of a nation toiling on its way to Babylon: look at these peeled and riven boughs; may I ,not warn you with the Apostle, If God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee.
We have seen an ancient mirror from the sepulchres of Egypt, in which, some three thousand years ago, the. swathed and mummied form beside whose dust it lay looked upon her face, to admire its beauty, or lament, and if possible conceal, the ravages of time. In the verses quoted, we have a mirror well nigh as old, in which the prophet showed God's ancient people their likeness and their sins; and when I take it from the dead man's hand, to hold it up before you, may not some of you recognise, in the features which it presents, those of your own state and character? Are they not to be seen in such words as these, I spake unto you, rising up early, and speaking, but ye heard not; and I called you, but ye answered not: or these, The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved. Are none of us the degenerate plants of a noble vine? Are there none of us, who, although trained to respect the Sabbath, have forgotten the lessons of our childhood? none with a holy picture of their early days yet fresh in memory, which exhibits a venerable father bending over the Bible, and, with his family around him, leading the domestic devotions, who have them selves no altar in their homes; who have a house, but no household God ? Have none of us defrauded our children, not of ancestral lands, but of an inheritance infinitely more valuable, an ancestral piety? On the walls of many a house from which piety has been expelled may we not read the words, They did worse than their fathers?
If we speak thus, it is for your good. We arm. ourselves with these thunders, only, in the words of Paul, "to persuade you by the terrors of the Lord." We have no faith in terror dissociated from tenderness. And as we trust more to drawing than to driving men to Jesus, we entreat you to observe that he who is the good is also a most tender Shepherd. Among the hills of our native land I have met a shepherd far from the flock and folds, driving home a lost sheep, one which had "gone astray," a creature panting for breath, amazed, alarmed, foot-sore; and when the rocks around rang loud to the baying of the dogs, I have seen them whenever it offered to turn from the path, with open mouth dash fiercely at its sides, and so hound it home. How differently Jesus brings back his lost ones! The lost sheep sought and found, he lifts it up tenderly, lays it on his shoulder, and, retracing his steps, returns homeward with joy, and invites his neighbours to rejoice with him. The green pastures where he feeds his flock, the rocks under whose grateful shadows they repose at hot noontide, the flowery and fragrant banks of the streams where they drink, are disturbed by no scenes of violence nor sound of terror. Yes; Jesus rules his flock by love, not by fear; and amid the holy calm of sweet Sabbath mornings, with some tender lamb in his arms, its mother at his side, and the whole flock behind him, gentle of countenance, he may be seen at their head, conducting them to pastures, all sparkling with the dews of heaven, his rod their guard, his voice their guide. Catching grace from his lips, and kindness from his looks, I desire to address you as becomes the servant of such a gentle, lowly, loving Master.
Yet, shall I conceal God's verity, and ruin men's souls to spare their feelings? Shall I sacrifice truth at the shrine of a false politeness? To hide what Jesus has revealed were not to be more tender, but only less faithful than he. If the taste of these days were so degenerate as to frown down the honest preacher who should pronounce that awful word " Hell," it were better, far better, that he should be as one crying in the wilderness - better that he got no response but the echo of empty walls, than that he should fail in proclaiming the whole counsel of God. Apart from your interests, and looking exclusively at my own, how could I otherwise hold up these hands to say, They are clean from the blood of all men? How otherwise could the preacher turn from his unhappy head this closing curse, If any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life. Regard to myself, and to you, regard to a gracious God, and to a blessed Saviour, regard to all that is precious, solemn, sacred, eternal, these now compel me, although with trembling hands, to lift the veil.
If any are living without God, and Christ, and hope, and prayer, I implore them to look here: turn to this dreadful pit. With what fire it burns! How it resounds with moaning wail and woful groans! Now, while we stand together on its margin, or rather draw back with horror, ponder, I pray you, the solemn question, Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings? It is alleged by travellers that the ostrich, when hard pressed by the hunters, will thrust its head into a bush, and, without further attempt either at flight or resistance, quietly submit to the stroke of death. Men say that, having thus succeeded in shutting the pursuers out of its own sight, the bird is stupid enough to fancy that it has shut itself out of theirs, and that the danger, which it has ceased to see, has ceased to exist. We doubt that. God makes no mistakes; and, guided as the lower animals are in all their instincts by infinite Wisdom, I fancy that a more correct knowledge of that creature would show, that whatever stupidity there may be in the matter, lies not in the poor bird, but in man's rash conclusion regarding it. Man trusts to hopes, which fail him; the spider never; she commits her weight to no thread which she ,has spun, till ,she has pulled on. it with her arms, and proved its strength. Misfortune overtakes man unprovided and unprepared for it: not winter the active bee. Amid the blaze of Gospel light, man misses his road to heaven: but in the starless night, the swallows cleave their way through the pathless air, returning to the window nook where they were nestled; and through the darkest depths of ocean the fish steer their course back to the river where. they were spawned. Would we find folly, Solomon tells us where to seek it : - Folly, says the wise man, is bound up in the heart of a child; and what is folded up there, like leaves in their bud, blows out in the deeds and habits of men. This poor bird, which has thrust its head into the bush, and stands quietly to receive the shot, has been hunted to death. For hours the cry of staunch pursuers has rung in its startled ear; for hours their feet have been on its weary track; it has exhausted strength, and breath, and craft, and cunning, to escape; and even yet, give it time to breathe, grant it but another chance, and it is away with the wind; with wings outspread and rapid feet it spurns the burning sand. It is because escape is hopeless and death is certain that it has buried its head in that bush, and closed its eyes to a fate which it cannot avert. To man belongs the folly of closing his eyes to a fate which he can avert. He thrusts his head into the bush while escape is possible; and, because he can put death, and judgment, and eternity, out of mind, lives as if time had no bed of death, and eternity no bar of judgment. Be wise. Be men. Look your danger in the face. Anticipate the day when you shall behold a God in judgment and a world in flames. Flee to Jesus now. Escape from the wrath to come. To come? In a sense wrath has already come. The fire has caught, it - has seized your garments; delay, and you are wrapt in flames. Oh! haste away, and throw yourselves into the fountain which has, power to quench these fires, and cleanse you from all your sins.

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