With lies ye have made the heart of the righteous sad, whom I have not made sad; and strengthened the hands of the wicked, that he should not return from his wicked way, by promising him life.
The verses which immediately precede this, require explanation, but perhaps our knowledge is hardly sufficient to enable us to give it fully. There are allusions to customs, -- to fashions rather, -- common amongst the Israelites at the time, which we can now scarcely do more than guess at; but we may observe, that there was a general practice, which even God's own prophets were directed often to comply with, of enforcing what was said in word by some corresponding outward action, in which the speaker made himself, as it were, a living image of the idea which he meant to convey. Thus, when Zedekiah, the son of Chenaanah, was assuring Ahab, that he should drive the Syrians before him, he made himself horns of iron, and said, |With these shalt thou push the Syrians, until thou have consumed them.| In the same way, it is imagined that the false prophetesses spoken of in the text were in the habit of wearing pillows, or cushions, fastened to their arms, and directed those who came to consult them to do the same, as a sign of rest and peace; that they who trusted to them had nothing to fear, but might lie down and enjoy themselves at their feasts, or in sleep, with entire security. Or, again, if we connect what is said of the pillows with what immediately follows about the kerchiefs put upon the head, we may suppose that both are but parts of a fantastic dress, such as was often worn by pretended prophets and fortune-tellers, and which they may have made those wear, also, who came before them. We know that the covering on the head was, for instance, a part of the ceremonial law of the Roman augurs, when they began their divinations. But, however this be, the exact understanding of these particular points is not necessary to our deriving the lesson of the passage in general. I know that there is something naturally painful to an active mind in being obliged to content itself with an indistinct notion, or still more, with no notion at all, of the meaning of any words presented to it. But, whilst we should highly value this sensitiveness, as, indeed, few qualities are more essential in the pursuit of truth, yet we must be careful not to let our disappointment carry us too far, so as to pass over a whole passage, or portion, of Scripture, as if in despair, because we cannot understand every part of it. Much of the supposed obscurity of the prophets arises from this cause -- that we find in them particular expressions and allusions, which, whether from a, fault in the translation, or from our imperfect knowledge of the times of which the prophets speak, and of the language in which they wrote, are certainly quite unintelligible. But these are only a few expressions, occurring here and there; and it is a great evil to fancy that their writings, in general, are not to be understood, because of the difficulty of particular passages in them. Thus, with the very chapter of which we are now speaking, the expression to which I have alluded can only be uncertainly interpreted, yet the lesson of the chapter, as a whole, is perfectly clear, notwithstanding. The dress, or fashions, or particular rites, of the false prophets of Jerusalem and their votaries, may offer no distinct image to our minds; but the evil of their doings, how they deceived others, and were themselves deceived; the points, that is, which alone concern us practically, these are set before us plainly. |With their lies they made the heart of the righteous sad, whom God had not made sad; and they strengthened the hands of the wicked, that he should not return from his wicked way, by promising him life.| Where the way of life was broad, they strove to make it narrow; and where it was narrow, they strove to make it broad: by their solemn and superstitious lies, they frightened and perplexed the good, while, by their lives of ungodliness, they emboldened and encouraged the wicked.
It may not, at first sight, seem necessary that these two things should go together; there might be, it seems, either the fault of making the heart of the righteous sad, without that of strengthening the hands of the wicked: or there might be the strengthening of the hands of the wicked, without making sad the heart of the righteous. And so it sometimes has been: there has been a wickedness which has not tried to keep up superstition: there has been a superstition, the supporters of which have not wilfully encouraged wickedness. Yet, although this has been so, with respect to the intention of the parties concerned, yet in their own nature, the tendency of either evil to produce the other is sure and universal. We cannot exist without some influences of fear and restraint, on the one hand, and without some indulgence of freedom, on the other. God has provided for both these wants, so to speak, of our nature; he has told us whom we should fear, and where we should be restrained, and where, also, we may be safely in freedom: there is the fruit forbidden, and the fruit which we may eat freely. But if the restraint and the liberty be either of them put in the wrong place, the double evil is sure to follow. Restrained in his lawful liberty, debarred from the good and wholesome fruit of the garden, man breaks out into a liberty which is unlawful; he eats of the forbidden fruit, whose taste is death; or, surfeited with an unholy freedom, and let to run wild in a space far too vast for his strength to compass, he turns cravingly for that support to his weariness which a narrowed range would afford him; and he limits himself on that very quarter in which alone he might expatiate freely. Superstition, in fact, is the rest of wickedness, and wickedness is the breaking loose of superstition.
But, however true this may be, are we concerned in it? First of all, when we find an evil dwelt upon often in the Prophets, and find it dwelt upon again by our Lord and his Apostles with no less earnestness, there is, at least, a strong presumption, that an evil of this sort is nothing local or passing, but that it is fixed in man's nature, and is apt to grow up in all times, and in all countries. Now, the double evil spoken of in the text, occurs again in the gospel; there we find men spoken of, who, in like manner, insisted upon what was trifling, and were careless of what was important; and in the epistles, we find, again, the same characters holding up as righteous others than those who worked righteousness: men, who spoke lies in hypocrisy, having their conscience seared with a hot iron. We may presume, therefore, that this evil is of an enduring character; but if we look back to the history of the Christian Church, or look around us, the presumption becomes the sad conviction of experience.
Nor is the evil merely one which exists in the country at large; a thing which might be fully dwelt upon any where but here. On the contrary, I hardly know of an age more exposed to it than youth. There exist in youth, in a very high degree, those opposite feelings of our nature, which I have before spoken of; a tendency to respect, to follow, to be led, on the one hand; and on the other, a lively desire for independence and freedom. These feelings often exist in the greatest strength in the same individual; and when they are not each turned in their proper direction, ruin is the consequence. Nothing is more common than to see great narrowness of mind, great prejudices, and great disorderliness of conduct, united in the same person. Nothing is more common than to see the same mind utterly prostrated before some idol of its own, and supporting that idol with the most furious zeal, and at the same time utterly rebellious to Christ, and rejecting with scorn the enlightening, the purifying, and the loving influences of Christ's Spirit.
The idols of various minds are infinitely various, some seducing the loftiest natures and some the vilest. But of this we may be sure, that every one of us has a tendency to some one idol or other, if not to many; and our business is especially each to watch, ourselves, lest we be enslaved to our peculiar idol. I will now, however, speak of those which, tempt the highest minds; which, by their show of sacredness and excellence, make us fancy, that while following them we are following Christ. And let none be surprised, if I rank among idols many things, which, in themselves and in their proper use and order, are indeed to be loved and reverenced. It was most right to respect the Apostle Peter, and listen to his word; but that great Apostle would have been ruin to Cornelius, and not salvation, if he had suffered him, without reproof, to fall down before him, and render to him the service due to Christ alone. How many good and pious feelings must have been awakened from age to age in many minds, at the sight of the brazen serpent on the pole, the memorial of their fathers' deliverance in the wilderness! But when this awakening, this solemn memorial was corrupted into an idol, when men bowed down before it in superstition, it was the part of true piety to do as Hezekiah did, to dash it, notwithstanding all its solemn associations, into a thousand pieces.
Thus things good, things noble, things sacred, may all become idols. To some minds truth is an idol, to others justice, to others charity or benevolence; and others are beguiled by objects of a different sort of sacredness: some have made Christ's mother their idol; some, Christ's servants; some, again, Christ's sacraments, and Christ's own body, the Church. If these may all be idols, where can we find a name so holy, as that we may surrender up our whole souls to it; before which obedience, reverence, without measure, intense humility, most unreserved adoration, may all be duly rendered. One name there is, and one only; one alone in heaven and in earth; not truth, not justice, not benevolence, not Christ's mother, not his holiest servants, not his blessed sacraments, not his very mystical body, but Himself only, who died for us and rose again, Jesus Christ, both God and Man.
He is truth, and he is righteousness, and he is love; he gives his grace to his sacraments, and his manifold gifts to his Church; whoever hath him hath all things; but if we do not take heed, whenever we turn our mind to any other object, we shall make it an idol and lose him. Take him in all his fulness, not as God merely, not as man merely; not in his life on earth only, not in his death only, not in his exaltation at God's right hand only; but in all his fulness, the Christ of God, God and Man, our Prophet, our Priest, our King and Lord, redeeming us by his blood, sanctifying us by his Spirit; and then worship him and love him with all the heart, and with, all the soul, and with all the strength; and we shall see how all evil will be barred, and all good will abound. No man who worships Christ alone, can be a fanatic, nor yet can be a more philosopher; he cannot be bigoted, nor yet can he be indifferent; he cannot be so the slave of what be calls amiable feelings as to cast truth and justice behind him; nor yet can he so pursue truth and justice as to lose sight of humbler and softer feelings, self-abasement, reverence, devotion. There is no evil tendency in the nature of any one of us, which has not its cure in the true worship of Christ our Saviour. Let us look into our hearts, and consider their besetting faults. Are we indolent, or are we active; are we enthusiastic, or are we cold; zealous or indifferent, devout or reasonable; whatever the inclination, or bias of our nature be, if we follow its kindred idol, it will be magnified and grow on to our ruin; if we worship Christ, it will be pruned and chastened, and made to grow up with opposite tendencies, all alike tempered, none destroyed; none overgrowing the garden, but all filling it with their several fruits; so that it shall be, indeed, the garden of the Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord shall dwell in the midst of it.
And who shall dare to make sad the heart of him who is thus drinking daily of the well-spring of righteousness, by telling him that he is not yet saved, nor can be, unless he will come and bow down before his idol? And if, rather than do so, he break the idol in pieces, who shall dare to call him profane, or cold in love to his Lord, when it was in his very jealousy for his Lord, and in his full purpose to worship him alone, that he threw down all that exalted itself above its due proportion against him? And if a man be not so worshipping Christ only, who shall dare to encourage him in his evil way, by magnifying the sacredness of his idol, and ascribing to it that healing virtue which belongs to Christ alone?
What has been here said might bear to be followed up at far greater length than the present occasion will admit of. But the main point is one, I think, of no small importance, that all fanaticism and superstition on the one hand, and all unbelief and coldness of heart on the other, arise from what is in fact idolatry, -- the putting some other object, whether it be called a religious or moral one, -- and an object often in itself very excellent, -- in the place of Christ himself, as set forth to us fully in the Scriptures. And as no idol can stand in Christ's place, or in any way save us, so whoever worships Christ truly is preserved from all idols and has life eternal. And if any one demand of him further, that he should worship his idol, and tells him that he is not safe if he does not; his answer will be rather that he will perish if he does; that he is safe, fully safe, and only safe, so long as he clings to Christ alone; and that to make anything else necessary to his safety, is not only to minister to superstition, but to ungodliness also; not only to lay on us a yoke which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear; but, by the very act of laying this unchristian yoke upon us, to tear from us the easy yoke and light burden of Christ himself, our Lord and our life.