It is the glory of God to conceal a thing.
The glory of God in concealing
If God were to conceal everything from our view, it would be impossible that any glory could result to Him from the sentiments and actions of His creatures. It is by a partial communication of Himself that He has, in the highest degree, consulted His honour and manifested His wisdom. A temperature of mingled light and obscurity, a combination of discovery and concealment, is calculated to produce the most suitable impressions of the Divine excellence on the minds of fallen creatures.
I. The Divine being is accustomed to conceal much. Specify some instances.
1. In relation to His own nature, and the manner of His existence. His essence is altogether hidden from the most profound investigation, the most laborious research, the most subtle penetration, of His creatures. We ascribe to Him attributes and virtues; but how He exists, in an essential and eternal nature of His own, no man can know. His perfections are impressed on the works of nature, but in such a manner that we learn them only by inference.
2. In relation to the structure and constitution of His works. The scenes of nature lie open to our view. But the mysteries of nature, with regard to the essences of things, and indeed to a multitude of subtle operations, are kept in a kind of sacred reserve, and elude the utmost efforts of philosophy to surprise them in their concealments, and bring them to light. Those that have devoted themselves to an investigation of the laws of nature perceive that the meanest work of God is inexhaustible; contains secrets which the wisdom of man will never be able to penetrate.
3. In the dispensations of His providence. By which is meant that series of actions which the Divine Being is continually carrying on in the government of the world which He has made. There exists such a decided connection between well-doing and happiness on the one hand, and between wickedness and misery on the other, as sufficiently to show, even independently of revelation, that the Divine Being is the patron of rectitude and the enemy of vice. But the natural course of things is frequently interrupted and suspended by incidental causes; so that particular exceptions are continually occurring to the ordinary rule. God conceals the design for which many events are permitted to take place. And He is accustomed to throw much obscurity over the future. The most important events of human life, on which our happiness greatly depends, are, for the most part, concealed from our view.
4. In the economy of grace and redemption. The revelation contained in the Scriptures extends only to facts, not to the theory of those facts, or their original causes. The most important truths are communicated in a dogmatic, not a theoretic, manner.
II. The Divine Being promotes His glory, by such a temperature of light and shade as that which distinguishes all His discoveries of Himself, and His dispensations towards His creatures.
1. The concealment of things tends to glorify Him, as it is, in part, the necessary consequence of His infinite superiority to all finite beings in wisdom and understanding. His purposes and designs cannot be adequately scanned by the wisdom of men.
2. It evinces His entire independence of the wisdom, counsel, or co-operation of any or all of His creatures. He may, with infinite safety and propriety, retire within Himself, into the secret recesses of His own essence.
3. Such a degree of obscurity as attends the partial manifestation of the Divine will, the progressive development of the Divine purposes, is eminently adapted to the state, exigency, and condition of men. The prophetic parts of Scripture are proverbially obscure. By not explaining His doings, God trains us to submission, and cultures humility and vigilance, while at the same time exciting to diligence and exertion. While there are many things which God conceals, and thereby advances His glory, He has made manifest all that it is essential for man to know. And among the things fully revealed is the placability of God, His readiness to receive the chief of sinners who repent of their sins and believe the gospel. (Robert Hall, M.A.)
God glorified by mystery
In our dealing with our fellow-men we resent reserve, secrecy, isolation, almost as sharply as though they were moral transgressions. We are attracted by frankness. The best hated men the world has had in it have always been men of silence. Mystery is one of the arts of crafty ambition, for the silly world is generally ready to accept silence for wisdom. Men cultivate the habit of concealment, so that they may pass themselves off for better than they really are. But reserve is not always ignoble. Strong, and noble, and unselfish qualities sometimes determine a man’s silence. The welfare of an empire may sometimes turn upon the power a statesman has of keeping the counsel of a department. There are reservations in the knowledge that God has given us of His own nature, purpose, and government; but these reservations always rest upon motives that are pure, noble, and holy, and are identified with the highest glory of the Divine character. No mystery is meant to alienate us from God, but to attach us in closer bonds. It is needless to define the area of mystery, if indeed that were possible. It starts in God, and covers the last outlying atom of His dominion.
1. There are mysteries in the Divine nature and government that bear direct witness to the glory of God’s person. The silence He maintains is a sign of His self-sufficiency. As a matter of privilege, God may permit us to enter into sympathy and co-operation with Himself and His work. But He does not need our help, and by the stern reserve in His revelations He asserts the separateness and the sufficiency of His own mighty power. If He employ us at all, it is for our good. His power is separate, sufficient, solitary. God conceals many things, to remind us of the gulf that separates the glory of His nature from the dimness of all finite natures. Man is destined to more exalted and intimate communion with his Maker than any other being in the universe, and yet there are limitations upon his privilege necessitated by the very supremacy of God. There are secrets we cannot enter, counsels we cannot share, age-long problems, the solution of which we are not permitted to see. God conceals many things, so that throughout the successive stages of our destiny He may bring into our contemplation of His nature and works elements of inexhaustible freshness. Reservations that are determined by motives of this type have an intimate relation to the glory of the Divine name. The revelations of the life to come will be gradual and progressive. If God’s revelation were a revelation of exhaustive fulness, a revelation with no reserved questions in it, the very enchantment of God’s nature would be gone.
2. God is glorified by mystery, because mystery has its place in the discipline and exaltation of human character. The veiled truth sometimes calls out a higher faith, a more chastened resignation, a more childlike obedience in God’s people, than the truth that is unveiled. God conceals many things, so that He may be magnified through His people’s trust in darkness and uncertainty. No genuine spirit of trust can spring up in ignorance. In God’s dealings with us, profound silence and ringing oracle, the hidden and the revealed, the mystery and the defined truth, alway alternate with each other. It is “the glory of God to conceal a thing,” because by the very shadows in which He hides it we are cast with a more pathetic dependence upon His sympathy and care, and come into truer and more childlike contact with His spirit. God conceals many things, so that He may protect us from needless pain and fear, and magnify His own gentleness. Many a thing must be hidden from a child, and the more sensitive he is, the stricter must be the concealment. God conceals some things from us to excite us to nobler and more strenuous endeavour in our search after the truth. There are truths that we shall come to know through our own thought and struggle, and deepening spirituality of life, temporary mysteries that it is best for us to know through conflict, experience, sustained contemplation. God hides many things from the world, so that He may have secrets with the custody of which He can honour His own chosen servants. And He conceals some things from us, so that He may impress us with the solemnities of the unknown. God never conceals what may be necessary to furnish His people for the work and service of life. Let the revelation inspire your faith, and let the mystery awaken your awe. (Thomas G. Selby.)
The glory of God and the honour of kings
I. The meaning of the passage is supposed to be that God conceals much, and that it is His glory to do so. There is a truth in this. We often try to find out God. God is the profoundest mystery in the universe, and yet all is mystery without Him. No creature knows God. There is much concealed in nature. It is not wonderful that there should be much in God’s providential procedure that is concealed from us. God’s ways are not our ways. If He has not given us light, it is better for us to be in darkness.
II. The great principle contained in the text. The text is a whole. One part must be taken with reference to the other. The wise man says it is the glory of God to do that which is not the glory of kings to do. Government is necessary to the very existence of society. There can be no government without law. It is the glory of all governments to frame wise and salutary laws for the well-being and true happiness of society, to guard these by sanctions, and by all the majesty of power. Governments do not originate that which is moral in law. They do not create the distinctions between right and wrong, good and evil. Magistrates are the representatives of law. They are to see that it is respected and maintained, and they are to punish law-breakers; if not, it is because offenders baffle pursuit, and hide themselves. If kings do not search out a matter, it is because they are indifferent to the conduct of their subjects, and care not whether they are virtuous or vicious; and then the hour of revolution is at hand; the kingdom will fall. The glory of God is the very opposite to the honour of kings. God is a law-giver. His will is the law of all morals. His being is the foundation of all law. And yet He has made provision for pardoning men. He hides, He conceals their sins. He does this by an atonement. It is the glory of God to save men by the death of Christ, because by saving them thus He may magnify His own law, and honour His own government. Governments have no gospel for criminals. God forgives sins. (H. J. Bevis.)
Man’s knowledge suited to his circumstances
You know as much as is good for you, for it is with the mind as with the senses. A greater degree of hearing would incommode us; and a nicer degree of seeing would terrify us. If our eyes could see things microscopically, we should be afraid to move. Thus our knowledge is suited to our situation and circumstances. Were we informed more fully beforehand of the good things prepared for us by Providence, from that moment we should cease to enjoy the good we possess, become indifferent to present duties, and be filled with restless impatience. Or suppose the things foreknown were gloomy and adverse; what dismay and despondency would be the consequence of the discovery; and how many times should we suffer in imagination what we now only endure once in reality! Who would wish to draw back a veil which saves them from so many disquietudes? If some of you had formerly known the troubles through which you have since waded, you would have fainted under the prospect. But what we know not now we shall know hereafter. (H. G. Salter.)
The concealed processes of Providence
Machinery boxed in goes round and accomplishes its work as well as if it were all exposed to view. At one extremity the raw material goes in, and at another the manufactured article comes out. This is all that the visitor sees. For once, and to instruct a stranger, the master may take the covering off, and lay bare the intricate accumulation of cylinders and wheels; but soon he shuts the door again. Thus has the Author of salvation in the case of some opened up in the processes of His providence, which are usually conducted in secret. (W. Arnot, D.D.)
Take away the dross from the silver, and there shall come forth a vessel for the finer.
No text in Scripture brings out with equal distinctness the higher office of affliction, i.e.,, to develop in us preparation for a true usefulness. The object of furnace fires is not to melt the precious metal, or even to release the dross, but to make the metal ready for the purposes of manufacture. Not the silver ingot, however, but the silver vessel, is the object of the assayer. When God tries His children, it is not simply that they shall “come forth as gold,” glorious as is purity of character, but that they may be both ready to be shaped for His purposes and capable of being used to fulfil His will. Paul seems to refer to this proverb in 2 Timothy 2:19-21, the only other passage in which the same truth is taught by the same figure. (Homiletic Review.)
Take away the wicked from before the king.
The removal of wicked men from influential positions
This shows that the vigorous endeavour of a prince to suppress vice, and reform the manners of his people is the most effectual way to support his government.
I. What the duty of magistrates is. To “take away the wicked”; to use their power for the terror of evil works and evil-workers, to banish those from the court who are vicious and profane, and to frighten them, and restrain them from spreading the infection of their wickedness among the people. Wicked people are the dross of a nation.
II. The advantage of doing this duty.
1. It will be the bettering of their subjects. They shall be made like silver refined; fit to be made vessels of honour.
2. It will be the settling of the prince. “His throne shall be established in this righteousness,” for God will bless his government, the people will be pliable to it, and so it will become durable. (Matthew Henry.)
Go not forth hastily to strive.
The worst and best ways of treating social dissensions
The social dissensions that are rife in our world are incontestable proofs that humanity has fallen from its normal condition. There is society in heaven, but no social differences or strifes. The text indicates the best and the worst way of treating such dissensions.
I. The worst way. “Go not forth hastily to strive.”
1. Precipitant strife is bad in itself. Men should never be hasty in yielding to a passion. They should make the passion, however strong and tumultuous for the moment, the subject of thought, and by thought should subdue, purify, and direct it.
2. Precipitant strife exposes to shame. “Lest thou know not what to do in the end thereof, when thy neighbour hath put thee to shame.”
II. The best way. “Debate thy cause with thy neighbour himself,” etc. The direction here seems to imply three things--
1. That an interview is to be obtained at once with the offender. “Debate thy cause with thy neighbour himself.”
2. That an interview is to be obtained in order to talk the offence over. “Debate thy cause.”
3. That the offence must be thus debated before the secret is divulged to another. “Discover not a secret to another.”
4. That should the secret be divulged to another the pacific objects of the interview might be nullified. “Lest he that heareth it,” etc. (Homilist.)
A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.
The lessons of the orange-tree
“Apples of gold” is a poetic name for the orange in more than one Eastern tongue. “Pictures of silver” may be a figure for the creamy-white blossoms of the orange-tree. No one who has seen orange-trees in full blossom and full bearing can have failed to notice how the beauty of the golden fruit is set off by its framework of white fragrant blossoms. “Fitly spoken” is in the margin “a word spoken in season”--a timely, opportune word. Delitzsch renders, “according to circumstances,” by which is meant a good word adapted to time and audience and to all the conditions of the time. Most of us can remember some word spoken in the very nick of time and so happily adapted to our conditions at the moment that it largely influenced our whole subsequent career. But perhaps the meaning is a word which was the fittest, the most perfect and beautiful expression of the thought which had to be uttered. “A word spoken on its wheels.” Every kind of thought has its appropriate expression in language. What the wise man bids us admire is those weighty and happy sentences which embody a noble thought in words of answering nobleness.
1. This is the first lesson of the orange-tree--that a happy, a fair and noble utterance of a wise thought gives it a new charm, a new and victorious energy. Distinction of style is almost as potent--if indeed it is not even more potent--on the life and fame of a book as depth or originality of thought.
2. All force becomes most forcible when it is smoothly and easily exerted. It is not effort, strain, violence which tell in action any more than in language, but gentleness, calmness, a gracious mastery and smiling ease. The wiser you are the less passionate, the less vehement, the less overbearing you will be. Great forces are calm and gentle because they are irresistible. Calmness, composure, gentleness are signs of strength.
3. Religion is most potent when it is clothed with grace. A genial and friendly godliness is like the ruddy fruit of the orange-tree encircled and set off by its wealth of white, odorous blooms. There was much that was admirable in the Puritan conception of religion; but though its heart was sound its face wore a frown. And in many of us religion still wears a sour and forbidding face. Some there are who still suspect beauty, culture, scholarship, mirth, and even devotion to God and man, if it take any form other than that which they approve and prefer. Such people do not render religion attractive. Let us learn the lesson of the orange-tree, and the greatest lesson of all--the lesson of charity. (Samuel Cox, D.D.)
Apples of gold in pictures of silver
The term translated “fitly” is a very curious one in the original Hebrew. It signifies “wheels,” and the marginal reading is “a word spoken on his wheels,” which means a word that rolled smoothly and pleasantly from the lips of the speaker to the ears of the hearer. In ancient times the carts had no wheels, and most things were carried on horseback. There were no roads, and the carts were put on long shafts, the two ends of which rested on the ground, and were dragged along by the horse with great difficulty, making deep ruts in the ground. The first wheels that were used in our country were very clumsy and rough. Modern wheels are light, and turn easily. The wise man says that each of your words should be like a vehicle on easy-going wheels, so smooth and courteous that it would produce no jar or shock to either speaker or hearer; not hurt by any harshness or roughness, or leave a painful rut behind in the memory. People in the East are remarkable for the grace and courtesy of their speech. They carry this sometimes too far, and are guilty of insincerity and exaggeration. We are apt to err in the other direction, and make our speech too rough and harsh, fancying that we cannot be true and sincere if we are polite. We are not so careful of our words as we ought to be. The text directs our thoughts to the surpassing excellence of gentle and kindly speech. Cultivated society is so pleasant to live in, because the people who move in it have learned to control their tempers, are polite and forbearing to each other, and do not say things that grate upon the feelings and leave a sting behind. But while good society gives an outward and artificial politeness, the religion of the meek and lowly Jesus gives true inward refinement and civility. It enables us to be truly considerate, bearing with the failings of some, overlooking the weaknesses of others, and having a good word to say of every one. It puts a wheel on every one of your words, so that it may glide smoothly. There are persons who grudge to say a word of praise to others, however deserving. Frankly praise what is worthy of praise, and your words will be sweet and pleasant to yourselves as well as to others. There is a temptation to be clever and say smart things, and to use words of sareasm or ridicule at the expense of those who are not so quick-witted as yourselves. Be very careful in finding fault with people, lest you should make the offender an enemy. In the text “apples” probably should be “oranges,” and this fruit gives a more suggestive figure. The flowers and fruit may be found together on the orange-tree throughout the whole year. The leaves are evergreen and of a cheerful, glossy green, and the flowers of a brilliant white, with a most delicious scent. So is the exceeding comeliness of a wise and gentle employment of your words. A word fitly spoken can administer an all-round delight in the same way. We speak about the language of flowers and of flowery language. It would be well if there was more of this attractiveness in our speech. The old Athenian laws required that a newly-married couple, when they were alone, should first eat a quince together, in token, as this fruit was the symbol of good-will, that their conversation should be mutually pleasant. And so your religion requires, in all your intercourse with one another, that you should first eat the quince of good-will, and be careful in choosing smooth words that have no sharp edges to cut and wound, that roll easily and pleasantly on wheels without making any jars or ruts. Over against all apples of discord that cause alienation and strife and misfortune set the golden apples of gentle, kind, considerate words that will win all hearts around you and sweeten the air and smooth all the rough things of the world. (Hugh Macmillan, D.D.)
The excellency of fitly-spoken words
The comparison here has undoubtedly an allusion to some old domestic ornament. “The idea,” says Stuart, “is that of a garment of precious stuff, on which are embroidered golden apples among picture work of silver. Costly and precious was such a garment held to be: for besides the ornaments upon it, the material itself was of high value.” Others think that the allusion is to a kind of table ornament, constructed of a silver basket of delicate lattice-work, containing gold in the form of apples. The basket would, of course, be so constructed as to show off with advantage its precious treasure, the apple of gold. The ancient Easterns were men of taste and men of art; they loved the beautiful, and they had their ornaments: and some of their ornaments were as exquisitely constructed as those of any scenes or times.
I. Words fitly spoken must be words fitted to exhibit the truth to the best advantage. They must be to the truth what the basket was to the apples of gold--an instrument for showing them off to the best advantage. There are words that hide the truth; they are so profuse and luxuriant that they bury the priceless flower in their wilderness. There are words that disgrace the truth; they are ill-chosen, mean, suggestive of low and degrading associations.
II. Words fitly spoken must be words adapted to the mental mood of the hearer.
1. Different men have different mental moods. Some are naturally sombre, imaginative, and practical; others are gay, poetic, and speculative. Words fitly spoken must be adapted to each particular mood: the form in which truth would suit one mood would be inapt to another.
2. The same man has different moods at different times. Circumstances modify the condition of the soul. Hence “a word fitly spoken” must be a word presenting truth adapted to the soul in its existing mood. It must be a word in due season.
III. Words fitly spoken should be words spoken in the right spirit.
IV. Naturally-flowing words. “Spoken upon his wheels.” Not forced or dragged words. Let us all endeavour to use the right words in the family, in the market, in the schools, in the debate, in the pulpit, on the platform, and in the press. (D. Thomas, D.D.)
Apples of gold
Things of rare worth and beauty are words “fitly spoken,” words that fit the case and match the opportunity. The human voice can do what nothing else can. Of some men’s words we are sure that they are “apples of gold.” Such are the words of the prophets who come with messages of hope and warning. Among words of truth and beauty are--
1. Words of comfort. We have no distance to go to find a human life that needs a consoling word. On the next foot of land to yours stands a man who craves for comfort. There are times in life when the word of instruction would be an injury and the elaborated argument a great hurt, as neither would minister to the mind diseased; but simple, earnest, heartfelt words, born of sympathy, are veritable “apples of gold.”
2. Words of counsel. These are not always welcome. Our independent spirit will not permit us to invite or accept them. Yet many a man traces the turning-point of his career to the time when he acted on some word of good counsel. The word of experience is often the word wanted.
3. Words of encouragement. The world will never know what it owes to those people who have encouraged others. To encourage a man is to help him to turn some of the possibilities within him into actual achievements. Let us give God thanks for all those winsome servants of His who walk their appointed ways across His world, speaking as they go the encouraging word. (Albert J. Shorthouse.)
Words on wheels
A wonderful deal of good often comes from what Solomon calls “a word fitly spoken.” The Hebrew for “fitly spoken” here means “set on wheels.” All our words are set on wheels. If they are good words, they are wheeling on for good. If they are evil words, they go wheeling on for evil. Remember this.
A word fitly spoken
A certain Baptist merchant of Richmond became seriously embarrassed in his business. The report went out that he had failed, and caused much painful surprise. A few days after the suspension of his business Dr. Jeter, in passing down the aisle of the church one Sunday morning, met him. He grasped him by the hand with unwonted warmth, and said, “ How are you, brother? I have heard fine news about you.” Just about that time the sad brother was feeling that all the news concerning him was of the worst sort. With mingled surprise and curiosity he asked the doctor what he had heard. “Why, I heard that you had failed in business, and failed honestly. It is nothing to lose your money if you have been able to retain your integrity.” The kind word went far to reconcile the brother to his misfortunes. He did “fail honestly,” and not long after started again, and rose to high prosperity. (From “Life of Dr. Jeter.”)
As the cold of snow in the time of harvest, so is a faithful messenger to them that send him.
The value of a good messenger to his employers
It is not necessary to imagine that Solomon here indicates the occurrence in Judea of snow in the time of harvest. It is very improbable that a snowstorm ever happened in that country during that period. The ancients in the East did as we do, preserve the ice and snow of winter in order to cool our summer beverages. A cold draught on a hot summer’s day was there, as here, most refreshing. What such a beverage was to the thirsty man in the heat of a tropical summer, is a faithful messenger to the soul of his master. Our subject is the value of a good messenger to his employer.
I. His character is refreshing to his master. What more pleasing to an employer than the development of fidelity in his servants? To see them faithful, not only to their engagements, but faithful to moral truth and to God. Even the Eternal Master of us all is pleased with the fidelity of His servants.
II. His influence is refreshing to his master.
1. His service will be likely to inspire his master with confidence in him. He calmly relies upon his representative.
2. His service will be likely to awaken general respect for his master. A “faithful messenger” can scareely fail to bring honour to his master. (Homilist.)
By long forbearing is a prince persuaded, and a soft tongue breaketh the bone.
The power of gentleness
In the government of our words, mildness, or meekness, is specially commendable. The right disposition includes meekness, gentleness, courteousness, kindness. These are the virtues of a soft tongue. The opposites are hardness, roughness, sharpness, bitterness, clamour, brawling. By the term “breaking” is meant persuading, pacifying, convincing, appeasing, prevailing with. A meek and gentle way of discourse is the most effectual means to overcome the fiercest passions and most obdurate, cruel dispositions. A calm and gentle way in vindicating ourselves is the most effectual means to work confusion in such as would calumniate and reproach us. This truth may be confirmed by two considerations.
1. The nature of these fierce passions and this obduracy or hardness of temper, which are increased by opposition, and consequently must be abated by gentleness and yielding.
2. From the nature of lenity and gentleness, whose property it is to insinuate itself into the hardest things. It is compared with oil. How does this doctrine consist with the imprecations of Scripture? Explain that some of them, though pronounced optatively, are to be understood declaratively, as descriptive of the true state and condition of such parties. Those who used these imprecations were inspired for a particular purpose. They spoke in their zeal for God. It may be right to wish evil to come to persons for the sake of its disciplinary mission. How does this doctrine consist with the severe imprecations of Scripture? Our Saviour called the Pharisees “vipers,” Herod a “fox.” The apostle calls some people “dogs.” To this it may be said, those who have an extraordinary power of discerning may use such hard terms. And those in public stations may thus severely chide and reprehend. How does this doctrine consist with the duties of zeal and reproving, which sometimes must be done with severity? A man may sometimes sin in not being angry. True “meekness of wisdom” directs a, man how to order his zeal and rebukes. Learn--
1. That if soft words be of such a prevailing efficacy, soft and gentle actions must be so too.
2. The folly and sinfulness of hard speeches, whereby others may be provoked to anger and offence.
3. The lawfulness and fitness of giving men the reverence and honour due to their proper titles.
4. Bitter and provoking words are unmanly, as being against the rules of morality and very un-Christian, as being against the precepts of the gospel. (Bp. John Wilkins.)
The manifestation and mightiness of moral power
There are three kinds of power--material, mental, and moral.
I. The manifestation of moral power. The words indicate a threefold manifestation.
1. Stillness. “By long forbearing is a prince persuaded.” Forbearance implies calm endurance--a patience like that which the Great Heavenly Exemplar exhibited under insults and persecutions.
2. Speech. “A soft tongue breaketh the bone.” “A soft tongue” not a simpering tongue, not a silly tongue, not a sycophantic tongue, but the “soft tongue” of tender love and forbearing kindness. Such a tongue is might: it “breaketh the bone.” This somewhat paradoxical expression expresses the amazing power of kind words; they break the bone, the ossified heart of the enemy. Another manifestation of power here is--
3. Service. “If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink,” etc. “In the smelting of metals,” says Arnot, “whether on a large or small scale, it is necessary that the burning coals should be above the ore as well as beneath it. The melting fuel and the rude stones to be melted are mingled together and brought into contact, particle by particle, throughout the mass. It is thus that the resistance of the stubborn material is overcome, and the precious separated from the vile.” There are but few hearts so obdurate as not to melt under the fires of love that blaze over and under them. These words direct our attention to--
II. The mightiness of moral power.
2. Breaking. “A soft tongue breaketh the bone.” Loving words can mollify the roughest natures. Gideon, with a kind word, pacified the Ephraimites, and Abigail turned David’s wrath away.
3. Melting. “Thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.” “The Americans have a tract on this subject, entitled, ‘The Man who Killed his Neighbours.’ It contains, in the form of a narrative, many useful, practical suggestions on the art of overcoming evil with good. It is with kindness--modest, thoughtful, generous, persevering, unwearied kindness--that the benevolent countryman killed his churlish neighbour: and it is only the old evil man that he kills, leaving the new man to lead a very different life in the same village, after the dross has been purged away.” How sublimely elevated is the moral legislation of the Bible! (D. Thomas, D.D.)
The power of Christian kindness
There is a tremendous power in a kind word.
1. Kindness as a means of defence. Have you ever known acerbity and acrimonious dispute settle a quarrel? I have seen men moving amid the annoyances, and vexations, and assaults of life in such calm Christian deliberation that all the buzzing around about their soul amounted to nothing. They conquered them, and, above all, conquered themselves.
2. Kindness as a means of usefulness. In all communities you find sceptical men. How shall you capture them for God? Sharp argument and sareastic retort never yet won a single soul from scepticism to the Christian religion. When such are brought in, it is through the charm of some genial soul, and not by argument at all. Men are not saved through the head; they are saved through the heart. The same thing is true in the reclamation of the openly vicious. Was ever a drunkard saved through the caricature of a drunkard? You can never drive man, woman, or child into the kingdom of God. (T. De Witt Talmage, D.D.)
Hast thou found honey?
eat so much as is sufficient for thee, lest thou be filled therewith, and vomit it.
Religion and pleasure
It is a mistaken notion that religion is a melancholy business, and the enemy of pleasure. Christianity is supposed to be synonymous with inanity, and to impose a weariness alike on flesh and spirit that stifles the freedom, represses the elasticity, and dulls the brightness which are the natural and precious heritage of youth. But this is as false as the devil who coined it. I stand here as the messenger of God, as the champion of pleasure, the advocate of hilarity, the apostle of enjoyment, the prophet of light-heartedness. Pleasure is a necessity of our nature. The goodness of God has made bountiful provision for full satisfaction and delight. The body is endowed with senses capable of exquisite sensations of delight. When you talk of the melancholy of religion you become the Pharisaic boaster, and not
I. You thank your God that you are not as other men. If the intellect seeks pleasure in the study of the physical universe, does the Christian philosopher discover less to charm his mind than do his scientific comrades of less assured belief? But ours is a triple manhood. There is the moral and spiritual man. Surely there is honey in doing right; there is pleasure in goodness and truth. As to the honey of life to be found in a good conscience, in doing right, in walking uprightly, according to the universally recognised laws of morality, surely the Christian has a better chance than the ordinary man. What does religion allow, or rather enjoin, in the way of pleasant recreations?
1. They must do me no harm; neither enfeeble my body, rob my brain of its vital energy, or disturb my inward sense of right.
2. They must recreate my body; brace it up, and leave me readier for after-service.
3. They must refresh my mind; not make it sluggish, heavy, depressed, and ill at ease.
4. They must cheer my heart--in their present influence, in their results, and in their memory. (J. Jackson Wray.)
The use of honey
1. The Bible does not prohibit pleasure. It does not say to the man who has found honey, “Eat it not!” but “Eat so much as is sufficient for thee.” What the Bible forbids is excess.
2. In prohibiting such pleasures, the Bible proceeds upon a principle of benevolence. “Eat no more than is sufficient for thee!” Why? Not because pleasure is grudged, but because pain is deprecated.
3. The principle upon which the Bible proceeds in this matter is a benevolent one, because it accords with the constitution of our nature. There is a point at which pleasure becomes pain. It is the law of our being, that if pleasure is to remain pleasure, it must be enjoyed moderately and intermittently. (Homiletic Review.)
I. The permission.
1. Pleasure is a necessity of our nature.
(1) A necessity of its complex constitution. We are made to enjoy. We have capacity for
(a) Animal pleasure;
(b) intellectual pleasure;
(c) moral pleasure;
(d) religious pleasure;
(e) social pleasure.
(2) A necessity of its instinctive desires. We have an intense craving for enjoyment. “Who will show us any good?” This yearning for enjoyment, found alike amid the refinements of civilisation as amid the rudeness of barbarism, alike in the mansion of the rich as in the cottage of the poor, alike by the learned philosopher as by the illiterate peasant.
(3) A necessity of its perfect development.
2. Pleasure is a possibility of our condition. God, the all-wise and all-kind, has not only made us for pleasure and given us a strong desire for it, but has also bountifully surrounded us with its sources.
(1) For the animal faculties. There is light for the eye, music for the ear, fragrance for the smell.
(2) For the intellectual. The universe is a problem for our study.
(3) For the moral. The true and good are around us, in the character of God, the actions of the good, etc.
(4) For the religious. God in Christ is revealed as the Object of worship.
(5) For the social. There is society, with its varied life.
3. Pleasure is an element of our religion. Christianity is not a morbid, ascetic system. “Rejoice in the Lord alway.”
II. The limitation: “Eat so much as is sufficient for thee.” Pleasure is not to be indulged indiscriminately and unlimitedly. We must indulge in such pleasures only as are--
1. Dignified in their nature. We must remember the spirituality of our nature and the immortality of our being. We are not animals. Let us not make the mistake of the rich fool. We are made in God’s image, and are capable of high and noble joys.
2. Beneficial in their influence. Pleasure must not be sought and indulged in on its own account, but as a means toward the attainment of a higher end. The objects of pleasure are--to recreate the body; to refresh the mind; to cheer the heart; to fit us for the work of life.
3. Christian in their sanction.
4. Proportionate in their degree. Pleasure must not be the end of life. It must not be pastime. Time is too valuable to be frittered away. (Thomas Baron.)
The world’s honey
I. The world has its honey.
1. It has a gastric honey. What pleasures can be derived from a participation in the precious fruits of the earth!
2. It has a gregarious honey. How great the pleasure men have in mingling with their kind, merely as social animals; the pleasure of mates, parents, children.
3. It has a secular honey. Pursuit, accumulation, and use of wealth.
4. It has aesthetic honey. The beautiful in nature, art, music.
5. It has intellectual honey. Inquiry into, and discovery of, the Divine ideas that underlie all the forms, and ring through all the sounds of nature.
II. The world’s honey may be abused.
1. Some eat too much of the gastric honey, and become gourmands, epicures, voluptuaries.
2. Some eat too much of the gregarious honey, and become profligate debauchees, bloated animals.
3. Some eat too much of the secular honey, and become wretched misers, haunted with a thousand suspicions.
4. Some eat too much of the aesthetic honey, and grow indifferent to everything but what they consider the beautiful and harmonious.
5. Some eat too much of the intellectual honey, and they have no life but in that of observatories, laboratories, and libraries.
III. The world’s honey abused produces nausea. Over-indulgence in any worldly pleasure issues in a moral sickness and disgust. There is what the French call the ennui that comes out of it--“that awful yawn,” says Byron, “which sleep cannot abate.” The intemperate use of this honey often makes life an intolerable burden. Conclusion: Take care how you use the world. You may have too much of a good thing. There is a honey, thank God! of which you cannot take too much, which will never surfeit or sicken--that is, the honey of spiritual enjoyment; the enjoyment of studying, imitating, worshipping Him in whose presence there is fulness of joy, etc. (D. Thomas, D.D.)
Withdraw thy foot from thy neighbour’s house.
Here are four kinds.
I. The intrusive. It is pleasant to be visited by a neighbour whose interest is genuine. Two evils accrue to those neighbours whose visits are intrusive.
1. They become tiresome. There is nothing fresh about them.
2. They become disliked. The natural consequence of irksomeness. Be not too intimate with any. Livy remarks “that the perfection of good behaviour is for a man to retain his dignity without intruding on the liberty of another.” Another bad neighbour here indicated is--
II. The slanderous. “A man that beareth false witness against his neighbour is a maul, and a sword, and a sharp arrow.”
1. A maul. This old English word, which is now obsolete, signifies a hammer or a club, an implement used in the rough warfare of fighting men in old times.
2. A sword. Another deadly implement, that by which millions of men have been cut down in all ages.
3. A sharp arrow. Another weapon of destruction. A slanderous neighbour is as mischievous as any or all of these murderous weapons. He knocks, he cuts, he pierces; he destroys you by his tongue. Not your body, but your plans, your prosperity, your reputation, your happiness. Another bad neighbour here indicated is--
III. The faithless. “Confidence in an unfaithful man, in time of trouble, is like a broken tooth, and a foot out of joint.”
1. That the unfaithful man fails. Like the “broken tooth” and the “foot out of joint,” he fails to fulfil what is required of him. Just when you want to eat, you find that the tooth is broken and useless; just when you rise to walk, you find that your foot is out of joint. Just so with the faithless man. All his old promises of friendship prove to be lies, nothing less.
2. The unfaithful man pains you. In the use of the broken tooth and the disjointed foot when you try them, there is not only disappointment, but torture. Such is the mental distress which is caused by the failure of confidence, in proportion to the degree in which you had cherished it. Especially is this felt “in time of trouble,” when help is so particularly needed. To trust and be deceived is at any time a bitter trial.
IV. The injudicious. “As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, and as vinegar upon nitre, so is he that singeth songs to an heavy heart.” When you are in trouble there are neighbours whose attempt to comfort you is as absurd and as ineffective as the taking away from a man his garment in cold weather, and as giving to a thirsty man vinegar upon nitre to drink.
1. The injudicious comforter is one who presents incongruous subjects. Sometimes he will talk on worldly subjects, subjects of gain, fashion, and amusement, when the distressed mind is sorely agitated with serious thoughts.
2. The injudicious comforter is one who presents proper subjects in an incongruous spirit. He talks of the right things, but talks of them with a spirit unsympathetic, sometimes undevout, canting, cold, and dogmatic. Such a man’s comfort is indeed vinegar on nitre, conflicting, irritating, and painful. (D. Thomas, D.D.)
Confidence in an unfaithful man in time of trouble is like a broken tooth, and a foot out of joint.
Man trusting in man
This is sometimes a great evil. To trust in man and disregard God, or to repose in man the confidence that rightly belongs to God alone, is sinful and ruinous. But in some respects it is natural and right to trust our fellow-men. We are social beings. There can be no friendship without trust. It is right to trust our friends--
1. For sympathy in joy or sorrow.
2. For help in time of need.
3. For honourable fidelity in all confidences.
I. The test of man as an object of trust. The “time of trouble” tests the faithfulness of those in whom we confide. Prosperity brings friends; adversity tests them. Three kinds of trouble test man as an object of trust--
1. Trouble in our circumstances, or loss and poverty.
2. Trouble in our reputation, or misrepresentation and slander.
3. Trouble in our character, or sin. For a truly Christian man may fall into grievous sin.
II. The failure of man as an object of trust.
1. The unfaithful man in time of trial fails those who trust him.
2. The failure of the unfaithful man in time of trial is painful to those who trust him. The attempt to use the broken tooth or dislocated joint causes suffering. Some of the keenest anguish of human souls is caused by the failure of those in whom they trusted.
(1) To be faithful to every trust reposed in us.
(2) To be careful in whom we repose confidence.
(3) To prize those whose trustworthiness we have proved.
(4) To place our supreme trust in God. (William Jones.)
The north wind driveth away rain: so doth an angry countenance a backbiting tongue.
The marginal reading, which is, “The north wind bringeth forth rain: so doth a backbiting tongue an angry countenance,” gives quite the opposite sense. In Arabia the north wind blew over a long tract of dry land, and therefore usually brought dry weather (Job 27:21); but in Judea the north wind, including all the winds between the north and north-west, blew from the Mediterranean Sea, and therefore commonly brought rain. Accepting the marginal version, the idea is, that as the north wind brings forth rain, a backbiting tongue brings forth an angry countenance. But our version, which we think equally faithful to the original, gives an idea equally good and important; it is, that an expression of displeasure in the listener will silence the tongue of the backbiter. The anger referred to here is a righteous anger; its object is legitimate, its expression is natural, its influence is useful.
I. Its object is legitimate. It is directed against “a backbiting tongue.” A backbiter is a clandestine traducer of character. His speech goes to damage another’s reputation behind his back. He does it sometimes by telling truth as well as falsehood. A man need not tell lies to be a backbiter; he can do it by parading damaging facts, and such damaging facts may be found in the Chapter s of every man’s life. He does it sometimes un-maliciously. He may be prompted by vanity; he may disparage another in order to set himself off to better advantage. He may do it from greed: his object may be to rob the subject of his talk of some share of his patronage and support.
II. Its expression is natural. “An angry countenance.” The countenance is a fuller, more faithful, and forceful revealer of the soul than the tongue. An admiring look has often won hearts which no words could enlist. A courageous look in the leaders of campaigns wakes the invincible in battalions. A reproving look has broken hearts, as Christ’s broke the heart of Peter. An angry look, not a mere peevish, petulant look, but a look of right down honest anger, directed to a backbiter, would send him in mute confusion from your presence.
III. Its influence is useful. “The north wind driveth away rain, so doth an angry countenance a backbiting tongue.” (Homilist.)
As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.
Good news from a far country
We live in a little world. It is simply that we are a part of it that it seems to us so great. By the multiplying of our interests in these days of change and travel, there is many a far country from which good news comes to us as cold waters to a thirsty soul. Think of that far country, heaven, and the soul’s yearning for good news thence. Every righteous thought, every pure, simple, generous purpose, every lowly resolve, every warning, of conscience within condemning wrong, every conception that seems to be wooing to holiness and sincerity, is a message from that far country. Well is it when they come to thirsting souls. There are many difficulties about a revelation from God. If we should be compelled to let miracles go, how simple is righteousness, how plain is love, how clear is purity! Who shall say that there are no messages from the far country? There may be uncertainties about many things, but there cannot be uncertainties here. It must be right that I love right, that I do right. God cares for His child--cares that its life shall be right and true and holy; that its sins shall be blotted out. All revelation is not in the Bible. It is rather a record of a revelation. Such records, too, are elsewhere. I lift my eyes to the nightly heaven, and the record is there. I look upon the new-born spring, and the record is there. I look into the heart of a little child, and the record is there What is the sum of all revelations; what is the revelation? Just Christ, the dear Saviour--His compassions, His infinite redemption, the great message; He Himself the living Message-bearer from the far country. All other good news is gathered about this. We cannot separate redeeming love from any other gift of our Father’s care. Common news from a far country will often, in this world of change, cheer you and me. We live in a world of separations and farewells. Our paths, with most of us, are together only for a little while. Countries far apart separate the members of the one family of God. But nowhere can they be where God is not. And members of the one family shall cheer each other’s heart with news from a far country. The news shall tell how God is leading all by different paths, the right way for each, to the one city of habitation. (T. Gasquoine, B.A.)
Tidings from a far country
Our interest in tidings from a far country may be based on many considerations.
1. We may be interested in the novelty and the strangeness of the information which reaches us about a foreign country, and the more so if any of our friends have been engaged in the exploration--e.g., Columbus returning from America, or Captain Cook from the South Seas.
2. If we have received any great possessions from that country: as Solomon hearing about India and China, when his merchants returned with gold, etc., from that country.
3. If any great stranger or dear friend has come from it--e.g., Solomon, hearing about Sheba or Egypt; or the English about Sardinia, when the king came over.
4. If any of our friends are there now--e.g., as news from Australia, America, or any other country, where we have friends. If it be good news, how it revives and cheers us! Perhaps our friends are doing business for us successfully. (The Congregational Pulpit.)
Good news from a far country
The traveller on a hot summer’s day, parehed with thirst, can easily understand the allusion, “cold waters to a thirsty soul.” They are cooling, refreshing, and invigorating, and enable him to pursue his journey with “strength renewed.” Not unfrequently they have been the means of saving life--e.g., Hagar in the wilderness (Genesis 21:14-20); Samson after slaying the Philistines (Judges 15:18-19). But the comparison is with good news. Who does not love to hear good news? How exhilarating the news brought to old Jacob respecting his son Joseph (Genesis 45:16-21); how joyful the tidings brought by messengers relating to the restoration of the Jews (Isaiah 52:7); how jubilant the feelings of the apostle, when bound at Rome, on hearing favourable reports of the Colossian and Philippian converts! He again “thanked God and took courage.”
1. The first piece of good news is this, that the treaty of peace has been signed. “Unto you is born a Saviour.”
2. So fascinating is that country that there will be no fear of disappointment when we visit it, no wanting to return again on earth.
3. That country has very great attractions. It is--
(1) A land of plenty. Failure and starvation, known, alas! often bitterly here.
(2) A land of perfection. Failure of ideals here.
(3) A land of victory.
(4) A land of friendships. (G. P. Story.)
I. What this good news is. It is an assurance of the most stupendous and amazing love of the greatest of all Beings.
1. It consists in pardon and peace.
2. It is the means of conveying everlasting joy.
3. It is the revelation of God to the soul.
4. It is the knowledge of sin atoned for; of the law fulfilled; of Satan conquered; of death vanquished; and of heaven opened.
II. This glorious news informs us of the stupendous way whereby this blessed intelligence is conveyed. It is conveyed through Christ as the author of salvation.
III. We must first become acquainted with the person sending, and country from whence, as well as the communication sent, before we shall esteem it as good news.
1. The Spirit of God must open and shine into our minds.
2. He must subdue our worldly affections.
3. He must conquer our stubborn wills.
4. And daily read this good news to our souls. (T. B. Baker.)
Echoes from afar
1. It is a far country, possibly, as measured by distance, this heaven that we talk about. I prefer to believe that the dwelling-place of Deity is near at hand, that the sainted dead are separated from us only by the thick, dense, fleshly veil which envelops our free soul, so that we can neither feel, nor hear, nor see. Heaven lies near to the habitations of the just.
2. But heaven is a “far country,” as being far away beyond our comprehension. It is so utterly far beyond our experience, so surpasses our comprehension, so outstrips our thought and conception, that even the aid of revelation does give us dim glimpses of the distant splendours.
3. Heaven is a “far country,” because we are by nature so disqualified from inhabiting it. We speak of the fall of man, and this is the measure of it--a fall from paradise to perdition--a fall that only power Divine can span. From this” far country” good news has come. News from a far country is interesting to us, if it is from a strange land, unlike our own. If we have those who are near and dear to us dwelling in it. If we hope, or intend, to live in it by and by. Good news has come from this far country, the best and most glorious news that can fall on mortal ear. Angels have brought it. Jesus has brought it. The Holy Spirit has brought it. Holy men, moved by Him, have written and spoken it. Subtle, gracious, secret good news is brought from the far country still. (J. Jackson Wray.)
It is not good to eat much honey.
Natural desires running too far
Man is a creature of manifold desires. These desires may be divided into two grand classes--
1. Those that can never go too far. Such are the desires for knowledge, holiness, assimilation to God.
2. Those that often run too far. Such are the desires for wealth; the desire for power, which often runs into tyranny; the desire for pleasure, which often runs into licentiousness. Here is running too far--
I. The desire for animal pleasure. “It is not good to eat much honey.” It is not good for the body. It is not good for the intellect. The rise of the animal is the fall of the mental. It is not good for the soul. The pampering of the senses is the death of the soul. “It is not good to eat much honey.” Here we have running too far--
II. The desire for human praise. “ So for men to search their own glory is not glory.” The word “not” which is here in italics, is not in the original; it has been supplied by our translators. In doing so they have evidently expressed the idea intended. A desire for the praise of our fellow-men is natural, innocent, and useful. It is very true that the praise of corrupt society is seldom of much worth, and often indeed contemptible. There are men whose desire for human praise becomes a passion; popularity is the god at whose shrine they are always paying their devotions. Be master of your desires. (D. Thomas, D.D.)
Pleasure and glory
The ordinary mind consents to this statement unwillingly. There is a natural reluctance to stop short in the pursuit of enjoyment. What glory can there be in getting a man to limit his own glory?
I. Our best interests are not served by living chiefly on earthly pleasures. Our highest being cannot be nourished by giving the chief place to earthly distinction and attainments. Life is not intended to be made up entirely of bank holidays and national festivals. Observe the point of emphasis in this verse. “It is not good to eat much honey.” A little is all very well. The question of recreation and amusement resolves itself into a question about the desires and impulses which are allowed to rule men’s lives. Let a man understand his true position He is face to face with a long history of good and evil principles working on the one hand sublimity, and on the other disaster, in the lives of millions. He has to take his place--carefully discovering his right place--in a world that is darkened by the shadow of the crime and ignorance of ages, and torn to the heart’s depth by the cruel wails of passion, and avarice, and remorse.
II. God has something better for us to do, and something nobler for us to enjoy. He has called to us to seek the knowledge of Himself; to grow up into this knowledge of Himself; and to use the knowledge of Him, as it comes to us, for the benefit of the world. Learn to think soberly and proportionately of all the pleasures and distinctions of this life; ever having “respect unto the recompense of the reward.” (W. H. Jackson.)
He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, and without walls.
Self-government essential to wisdom
Here is shown the ruinous condition of the person who has no rule over his own spirit. What can concern a man more than the art of self-government? It is inexcusable for a man to be a stranger to himself, and not to know how to make the best of his own natural powers and affections.
I. What is it to have rule over our own spirits We ought to consider the entire constitution of our minds. There is something in the spirit which has a right to dominion, as being in its nature superior; there are other parts which hold an inferior place, and ought to be in subjection. There is conscience, a sense of duty and sin, and of moral good and evil; a necessary self approbation arising from the one, and reproach and condemnation from the other. And there are propensities in our minds arising on particular occasions of life. These have been conquered, and may be.
II. Where is the proper authority lodged? Some things are necessary effects of laws of nature, and in relation to them man has no rule. A man can inquire and deliberate. The active powers may be suspended while we deliberate. To have rule over our own spirits is to keep the passions under an exact discipline. And there are natural desires in men of very unequal moment which often rise to passions. The true end of self-government is that the superior powers of the mind may be preserved in their due exercise. (J. Abernethy, M.A.)
The diversity of men’s natural tempers
The spirit sometimes means a temper, disposition, or turn of mind, in general: thus we read of “an haughty spirit” and of “an humble spirit.” This is, perhaps, the meaning of the expression in my text: by him that hath no rule over his own spirit may be meant the person who hath no government of his passions. But the expression may, without any impropriety, be taken for a man’s particular temper or predominant turn of mind. God delights in variety throughout all His works. The same God is the Father of our spirits; and He has formed them also with considerable variety. All matter has the same essential properties; yet the forms into which God has moulded it, and the purposes to which He has applied the several parts of it, are infinitely different. In like manner the souls of all men are indued with the same faculties; but from the degrees in which they possess these faculties, and from the proportions in which they are combined, there results an endless diversity of characters in the human species. When the malevolent passions have a tendency to predominate in the soul, they occasion all those diversities of temper to which we apply the epithets sour, sullen, morose, severe, captious, peevish, passionate, ill-humoured, and the like. On the contrary, the prevalence of the benevolent affections of the heart produces a great variety of tempers, some of which we term the sweet, the gentle, the mild, the soft, the courteous, the tender, the sympathising, the affectionate, the generous. We may observe further that very great diversities of temper may proceed from the same passion, only by its being predominant in different manners. The passionate temper and the peevish are extremely different; yet they both proceed from the predominance of the very same principle--sudden anger. Deliberate anger produces in those who have a propensity to it many distinctions of temper unlike to both these. It may be remarked likewise that some tempers proceed from the weakness of a particular disposition more properly than from a predominance of the contrary. Courage, so far as it is constitutional, proceeds merely from the absence of fear. Impudence is not the prevalence of any positive affection, but only the want of shame. A want or a relative weakness in any one of the numerous parts of a clock affects the soundness of the whole machine. The several passions and affections are, in different men, combined in an infinite variety of ways, and every particular combination of them produces a distinct temper. Perhaps every temper, when it is analysed, will be found not to arise from the prevalence of a single affection, but to derive its form in some degree from the union of several. Thus in a compounded colour different ingredients are mixed, and may be observed on attention, though one be so much predominant as to give it its common denomination. But it is not only by the prevalence of some of them in comparison with the rest that the passions produce diversities of temper among mankind: the general tone also of all the passions occasions a suitable peculiarity. A musical instrument acquires different tones by having all its strings wound up to different keys. The passions of different persons are as it were wound up to a variety of keys, and thence their souls derive distinct tones of temper. Though the passions be the most immediate causes of the varieties of temper, and though on that account they required our principal notice in explaining these varieties, yet it must be observed that some peculiarities of temper are occasioned almost wholly by the form of the intellectual powers. When the understanding is clear and decisive it lays the foundation of a firm and determined temper; an inability to form a clear opinion produces fickleness and inconsistency. The same temper may, in different men, proceed from different causes. The source of fickleness and inconstancy is sometimes weakness of judgment; sometimes timidity; and sometimes the keenness of all the passions, hurrying a man continually into new pursuits according as they happen to be excited in their turns. A temper of rashness may proceed from an improvident judgment, from the absence of fear and caution, or from the violence of any passion. As similar tempers may proceed from dissimilar causes, so even opposite tempers may proceed from the same cause. The sceptical temper and the credulous may ultimately be resolved into the same imbecility of understanding, an inability of clearly discerning the real force of evidence. This inability likewise gives rise to an obstinate temper in some, to a wavering temper in others: one is immovable in all his designs, because he is incapable of discerning the strength of those reasons which should persuade him to alter them; another is fickle in them all, because he cannot see the weakness of the reasons which are produced against them. Such are the general causes of the diversity of tempers among mankind. As no two plants are exactly alike, as no two human faces are absolutely undistinguishable, so no two tempers are perfectly the same. Every man has “his own spirit,” his peculiar temper, by which he differs from every other man.
1. Each of us should study to know his own particular temper. The knowledge of our natural temper is one important part of the knowledge of ourselves.
2. A proper sense of the endless variety of tempers in the human species would lead us to make greater allowance for the sentiments and conduct of others than we often do.
3. The amazing diversity of tempers in the human species is a striking instance of the contrivance and wisdom of the God who made us. Variety, combined with uniformity, may be considered as the very characteristic of design; a perfect combination of them is an indication of perfect wisdom. (Alex. Gerard, D.D.)
The necessity of governing the natural temper
Is it, then, needful to evince the necessity of a man governing his own temper? Every man acknowledges that all others ought to govern their tempers, and complains of them when they do not. That we may perceive how much it is the duty of every one of us to govern his own temper, let us attend to the ill effects of neglecting to govern it. They are pointed out by an expressive figure in the text: “He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down and without walls”; he has no security against abandoning himself to every vice. Need I point out minutely the vices to which the indulgence of a contracted and selfish temper naturally leads? The selfish affections are various; they turn to different objects; but it requires the strictest government to prevent a temper founded on the prevalence of any of them from degenerating into the correspondent vice, ambition, or vanity, or avarice, or sensuality, and the love of pleasure. It is still less necessary to enter into a long detail of the detestable vices which spring from a temper founded in a propensity to any of the malevolent passions. They lead to vices which spread misery through society, and which overwhelm the person himself with greater misery than he brings upon those around him. Habitual peevishness, producing fretfulness on every, the slightest, occasion, putting one out of humour with every person and every thing, creating incessant uneasiness to those who are connected with him, eating out the enjoyment of life, is the natural effect of a temper founded on a propensity to anger, though accompanied with the weakest tone of passion. In whatever way our temper most disposes the several passions and affections to exert themselves, it will, without regulation, prove the source of peculiar vices. When the propensity to desire renders the temper keen and eager, if we lay it under no restraint, it must engage us in trifling and vicious pursuits; in respect of the object of our pursuit, whether pleasure, profit, or power, it must render us craving and insatiable, ever unsatisfied with what we have obtained, wishing and plotting for more; and in respect of the means of prosecution, it must render us impetuous and violent, regardless of the bounds of right, impatient of every delay and opposition. Is the opposite propensity to aversion indulged? Everything wears a gloomy aspect, and is viewed on its darkest side: we act as if we were resolved never to be pleased; we search for occasions of disgust, regret, and uneasiness, and we find them in every object; every gentle affection is banished from the breast; discontent, fretfulness, and ill-humour become habitual. The same temper, it may be further observed, will lead a man, with equal readiness, into opposite vices in opposite situations. The same littleness of mind renders a man insolent in prosperity and abject in adversity. That vice, be it what it will, to which our particular temper directly leads us, is an enemy already advanced to the gates of the heart; and if it finds the heart “like a city without walls,” it enters at its pleasure; we can make no resistance. But this is very far from being the whole effect of our neglecting to govern our natural temper: the man who ruleth not his spirit does not merely become enslaved to one vice; in consequence of this he is open to every vice. Every ruling sin will require from the man who lives in the indulgence of it the commission of many others for its support, for its gratification, or for disguising and concealing it. But it deserves to be particularly remarked that as soon as the misgovernment of natural temper has subjected a man to one ruling vice, he is no longer proof against even such vices as are in themselves most opposite to that very temper. Every one’s observation will supply him with instances of persons who, being engaged in one vicious course, have by it been led into sins most contrary to their nature; with instances of the soft and gentle being brought to act with cruelty; of the benevolent and kind-hearted labouring to bring ruin upon those who happened to stand in the way of some unlawful project; of the generous, in the prosecution of some bad design, stooping to the most sordid actions; of the candid and open betrayed into schemes of artifice, dissimulation, and falsehood; of the timid rushing forward into the most dangerous crimes. Thus the man who abandons himself to that one vice which arises from the corruption of his natural temper is from that moment in danger of every sin. Every predominant vice requires as great a number of other vices to be subservient to it in the course of a wicked life as the ministers whom any tyrant can stand in need of to be the instruments of his cruelty, rapacity, and lusts. By being “like a city without walls,” destitute of defence against any sin, he becomes “like a city broken down,” reduced to ruins, desolated, uninhabited, and uninhabitable. Can you think without terror of the accumulated guilt of all these vices, and of the punishment to which they must expose you? Possessed and actuated by these emotions, be roused to every exertion for removing the faulty propensity of your nature. While you neglect to govern your natural temper, all your endeavours to avoid or to mortify the vices which spring from it will be but like lopping off a few twigs, which the vigour of the root will enable quickly to grow again, perhaps stronger and more luxuriant than before: it is only by setting yourselves at once to govern it, to rectify all its perversities, that you can lay the axe to the root of the tree, and effectually kill all the branches. (Alex. Gerard, D.D.)
The manner of governing the natural temper
To extirpate one’s natural temper is impossible. It is a distinguishing character, impressed on every soul by the hand of the Almighty, which the power of man can no more erase than it can efface the distinctive characters of the several kinds of plants and animals, and reduce them all to one kind. If it were possible for a man to destroy his peculiar temper, it would not be necessary; it would be even pernicious. Among all the varieties of temper which men possess there is not one inconsistent with virtue, there is not one which duty requires us to endeavour to extirpate. But though it be neither possible nor necessary to extirpate the natural temper, it is both possible and necessary to govern it. We every day meet with persons who, from good breeding, or from prudence, can disguise their temper and keep it from showing itself, not on one occasion, but on many occasions and through a long course of time; could not, then, better principles enable them to correct it? A physiognomist pretended to discover by his art that the great Athenian philosopher Socrates was addicted to vices so opposite to his whole conduct and character, that all who knew him were disposed to ridicule the pretensions of the physiognomist as absurd; but, to their astonishment, Socrates declared that he was, by his constitutional bias, prone to all the vices which had been imputed to him, and that it was only by philosophy that he had got the better of them. Would it not be shameful if many Christians could not make a similar declaration?
1. The first object of a man’s care, in ruling his own spirit, is to refrain his natural bias, so that it may not become vicious, or lead him into sin. Every passion and affection is weak and pliable in the moment of its birth. Had we always recollection enough to observe, and resolution enough to check its first tendency to irregularity, our victory over it would be easy. But if we let slip this favourable moment, it will soon be able to carry us wherever it pleases. If, therefore, we would refrain our predominant passion, we must be at the greatest pains to avoid the objects, the opinions, the imaginations, which are favourable to its growth. In order to restrain our ruling passion it will often be necessary studiously to turn our attention to such objects, and to accustom ourselves to such actions as are most contradictory to it. When a twig has long been bent one way it cannot be made straight without being for some time bent the contrary way. The vices to which the natural temper gives us a propensity are those which we shall find the greatest difficulty in conquering, and which, after many defeats, will most frequently revolt. The last vices which a good man is able to subdue are his constitutional vices.
2. It implies that every man render his temper subservient to the practice of virtue and holiness. As every natural temper, even the most amiable, may degenerate into vice, so, on the contrary, every temper, even that which becomes most disagreeable by the smallest corruption of it, may be made to contribute to the virtue of the heart. Some turns of temper are naturally and strongly allied to virtue. All the tempers which are founded in a predominance of the kind affections are directly favourable to the love of mankind, to all the important virtues of benevolence and charity, and render the practice of every social duty easy and pleasant; or that they introduce a habit of soul congruous to the love of God, as well as to that inward serenity which characterises every grace, and renders it doubly amiable. Other turns of temper are, as it were, neutral between virtue and vice: in perceiving how these may be rendered serviceable to virtue there is little difficulty. The keen and eager temper in which desire is the chief ingredient, when directed to holiness as its object, will render a man spirited in the practice of it, and susceptible of a strong impulse from its joys and rewards. The contrary temper in which aversion prevails, tends to cherish a deep abhorrence of sin, which is one of the strongest securities against the indulgence of it. Both these tempers may become equally conducive to holiness by prompting us, the one to avoid evil, the other to do good. A high tone of passion, a sensibility, ardour, or activity of spirit, prepares the soul for entering into the raptures of devotion, for feeling the fervours of godly zeal, for showing eminent alacrity in every duty. A temper opposite to this may be improved into a settled composure and calm equability in the love and practice of holiness. It is more needful to observe, because it is not so obvious, that even those turns of temper which are most nearly allied to vice, and which are with the greatest difficulty kept from running into it, may notwithstanding be rendered subservient to virtue. Pride, for instance, may be improved into true dignity of character, into a noble and habitual disdain of every thought and action that is mean or base. An ambitious temper needs only to be fixed upon its properest objects in order to animate us in the indefatigable pursuits of that genuine honour which results from the approbation of God and from the glories of heaven, and which will be bestowed only on the righteous, and in proportion to their righteousness. A temper which, by being neglected, would become blameably selfish and contracted, will, by being governed, become eminently conducive to prudence, and an incitement to diligence in that course of holiness which is our real wisdom and our best interest. Even that temper in which the malevolent affections tend to preponderate, the sour, the morose, the irascible, may be rendered subservient to our virtue and improvement: if it be curbed so strongly as not to lead us to hurt others, or to wish for their hurt, it will exert itself in a keen indignation against vice, a rigorous purity of heart, a blameless severity of manners; and it will make us inaccessible to many temptations which have great power over soft and gentle and social minds.
3. We ought not only to render our peculiar temper subservient to virtue, but also to incorporate it with all our virtues. All the good men whose lives the Scripture has recorded display different forms of holiness derived from their dissimilar tempers. Job is characterised by patience; Moses by meekness; David is high-spirited, his devotion is fervent, his virtues are all heroic; John and Paul are both warm, fervent, and affectionate, but the warmth of the former is sweet and gentle, that of the latter bold and enterprising. As every man thus derives from nature a distinct personal character, he ought to adhere to it, and to preserve its peculiar decorum. He can preserve it only by maintaining his own natural temper so far as it is innocent, and acting always in conformity to it. To conclude: If we would rule our own spirit, if we would govern our natural temper, let us restrain it from degenerating into vice, or leading us into sin. The means of governing our peculiar temper are the same with the means of performing every other duty, resolution, congruous exercises, watchfulness and prayer. But all these means we must in this case employ with peculiar care and diligence, because it is a matter of peculiar difficulty to control and regulate our predominant disposition. Its importance is, however, in proportion to its difficulty. If we can effectually accomplish this, it will render it the easier to subdue all our other irregular passions. They act in subordination to it, and derive a great part of their strength from it; and to subdue it is like cutting off the general who was the spirit of the battle, and on whose fall the army breaks and takes to flight. (Alex. Gerard, D.D.)
No man can be said to have attained complete rule over his own spirit who has not under his habitual control the tenor of his thoughts, the language of his lips, and motions of lust and appetite, and the energy of his passion. This shows you at once the extent, and the division of our subject.
I. The government of the thoughts. After all that has been written on the subject of self-command, the regulation of the thoughts has seldom drawn the attention of moralists. On the authority of silly maxims like these, that thought is free as air, that no one can help what he thinks, innumerable hours are wasted in idle reveries without the suspicion of blame. The time which we fondly supposed to be merely wasted in doing nothing may have been easily employed in mischievous imaginations, and thus what was considered as lost simply is found to be abused. When we reflect also that every licentious principle, every criminal project, and every atrocious deed is the fruit of a distempered fancy, whose rovings were originally unchecked till thoughts grew into desires, desires ripened into resolves, and resolves terminated in execution, well may we tremble at discovering how feeble is the control over our imaginations which we have hitherto acquired. We do not say that Caesar, brooding over his schemes of ambition in his tent, was as guilty as Caesar passing the Rubicon and turning his arms against his country; but we do say that licentiousness of thought ever precedes licentiousness of conduct; and that many a crime which stains human nature was generated in the retirement of the closet, in the hours of idle and listless thought, perhaps over the pages of a poisonous book, or during the contemplation of a licentious picture.
II. The government of the tongue. “If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man.” This will not appear an extravagant assertion when we consider how numerous are the vices in which this little member takes an active part. If we consider these vices of the tongue in the order of their enormity, we shall see how easily one generates another. Talkativeness, the venial offspring of a lively, not to say an unrestrained, fancy, hardly rises to a fault till it is found that he “who talks incessantly must often talk foolishly, and that the prattle of a vain and itching tongue degenerates rapidly into that foolish talking and jesting which, as an apostle says, are not convenient. If for every idle, unprofitable, false or calumniating word which men shall speak they shall give an account in the day of judgment, what account shall those men render whose conversation first polluted the pure ear of childhood, first soiled the chastity and whiteness of the young imagination, whose habitual oaths first taught the child to pronounce the name of God without reverence, or to imprecate curses on his mates with all the thoughtlessness of youth, but with all the passion and boldness of manhood?
III. The government of the animal appetites. “Dearly beloved, I beseech you, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul.” For how humiliating is the consideration, enough, indeed, to make us weep with shame, that man, the noblest work of God on earth, the lord of this lower world, that this noble creature should suffer himself to fall into the hands of the grovelling mob of appetites, and to be fettered by base lusts which ought to be his slaves--that this ethereal spirit should be wasted in the service of sensuality, and this intelligence, capable of mounting to heaven, be sunk and buried in the slime and pollution of gross and brutal pleasures!
IV. The government of the passions. Not to be in a passion is generally the amount of the notion which the world entertains of self-command. In the broad scheme of gospel ethics, the opposite to anger is meekness; and meekness is no narrow or superficial virtue. The meek man of the gospel is the very reverse of those who act the most bustling and noisy part on the theatre of human life. He finds himself in a world where he will be oftener called to suffer than to act. He is not ambitious, because he sees little here worth ambition. Humility is the gentle and secret stream which runs through his life and waters all his virtues. To the government of the passions the principal prerequisite is the restriction of the desires; therefore, as he expects little from the world he will not often quarrel with it for the treatment he receives. (J. S. Buckminster.)
I. What is meant by not having rule over our own spirit?
1. Intemperance of feeling, especially angry feeling.
2. Extravagance of speech.
3. Rashness of conduct.
4. Hence the formation of pernicious habits.
II. The evil of lacking self-control. It destroys the walls of our city, and exposes us--
1. To the inroads of sin; and is itself sin.
2. To insult and dishonour.
3. To the machinations of foes.
4. To utter destitution and ruin.
III. The means of promoting self-control.
1. Habitual efforts of the will.
2. Avoidance of temptation.
3. Prayerful dependence on God’s Spirit.
4. A serious and thoughtful habit of mind.
IV. Reasons and encouragements.
1. Self-control is an essential part of our salvation.
2. The example of God’s forbearance.
3. The example of Christ’s meekness.
4. Its connection with our usefulness.
5. Self-control gives real increase of power.
1. To the Christians in their family and friendly intercourse.
2. To Christians in Church deliberation and action.
3. To Christians in secular business and general intercourse with the world. In conclusion, distinguish between self-control and apathy; and show its consistency with being zealously affected in a good cause. (The Congregational Pulpit.).