(Fifth Sunday after Easter.)
DEUT. xi. 11, 12. The land, whither ye go to possess it, is a land of hills and valleys, and drinketh water of the rain of heaven. A land which the Lord thy God careth for: the eyes of the Lord thy God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year, even unto the end of the year.
I told you, when I spoke of the earthquakes of the Holy Land, that it seems as if God had meant specially to train that strange people the Jews, by putting them into a country where they MUST trust him, or become cowards and helpless; that so they might learn not to fear the powers of Nature which the heathen worshipped, but to fear him the living God.
In this chapter is another instance of the same. They were to be an agricultural people. Their very worship was (if you can understand such a thing now-a-days) to be agricultural. Pentecost was a feast of the first-fruits of the harvest. The Feast of Tabernacles was a great national harvest home. The Passover itself, though not at first an agricultural festival, became one by the waving of the Paschal sheaf, which gave permission to the people to begin their spring-harvest -- so thoroughly were they to be an agricultural and cattle-feeding people. They were going into a good land, a land of milk and honey and oil olive; a land of vines and figs and pomegranates; a rich land; but a most uncertain land -- a land which might yield a splendid crop one year, and be almost barren the next.
It was not as the land of Egypt -- a land which was, humanly speaking, sure to be fertile, because always supplied with water, brought out of the Nile by dykes and channels which spread in a network over every field, and where -- as I believe is done now -- the labourer turned the water from one land to the other simply by moving the earth with his foot.
It was a mountain land, a land of hills and valleys, and drank water of the rain of heaven; a land of fountains of water, which required to be fed continually by the rain. In that hot climate it depended entirely on God's providence from week to week whether a crop could grow.
Therefore it was a land which the Lord cared for -- a land which needed his special help, and it had it. 'The eyes of the Lord God were always upon it, from the beginning of the year unto the end of the year.'
Beautiful, simple, noble, true words -- deeper than all the learned words, however true they may be (and true they are, and to be listened to with respect), which men talk about the laws of Nature and of weather. Who would change them for all the scientific phrases in the world? The eyes of the Lord were upon the land. It needed his care; and therefore his care it had.
Therefore the Jew was to understand from his first entry into the land, that his prosperity depended utterly on God. The laws of weather, by which the rain comes up off the sea, were unknown to him. They are all but unknown to us now. But they were known to God. Not a drop could fall without his providence and will; and therefore they were utterly in his power.
'And it shall come to pass, if ye shall hearken diligently unto my commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, that I will give you the rain of your land in his due season, the first rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil. And I will send grass in thy fields for thy cattle, that thou mayest eat and be full. Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and ye turn aside and serve other gods, and worship them; and then the Lord's wrath be kindled against you, and he shut up the heaven, that there be no rain, and that the land yield not her fruit; and lest ye perish quickly from off the good land which the Lord giveth you.'
Now the Bible story is, that this warning came true. More than once we read of drought -- long, and severe, and ruinous. In one famous case, there was no rain for three years; and Ahab has to go out to search through the land for a scrap of pasture. 'Peradventure we shall find grass enough to save the horses and mules alive.'
And most distinctly does the Bible say that these droughts came at times when the Jews had fallen into idolatry, and profligacy therewith. That is the Scripture account. And if you believe in the living God, whose providence ordereth all things in heaven and earth, that account will seem reasonable and credible to you.
What special means God used to bring about these great droughts we cannot know, any more than we can know why a storm or a shower should come one week and not another. And we need not know. God made the world, and God governs the world, and that is enough for us.
Be that as it may, Moses goes down to the very root and ground and true cause of the riches of the land, and of the rainfall, and of the prosperity of the Jews, and of the prosperity of any living nation on earth, when he says, 'Therefore shall ye lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes.'
'Ye shall lay up these my words in your heart and your soul, and teach them your children when thou sittest in thine house and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down and when thou risest up.' That is, thou shalt believe continually in a living God -- a God who is working everywhere at every moment, about thy path and about thy bed, and spying out all thy ways; and not only about thee, but about all that thou seest. From him comes alike rain and sunshine; from him comes the life of man; from him comes all which makes it possible for man to live upon the earth.
And it is a plain fact that the Jews for a long time did believe this -- at least the prophets, psalmists and good men among them -- to the most intense degree; to a degree in which perhaps no nation has believed it since. With them God is everything, and man nothing. Man finds out nothing: God reveals it to him. Man's intellect does nothing: the Spirit of God gives him understanding to do it -- even, says Isaiah, understanding to plough, and to sow, and to reap his crops in due season. It is the Spirit of God, according to the prophets and psalmists, which makes the difference between a man and a beast. But upon the beasts too, and the green things of the earth, and on all nature, the Spirit of God works. He is the Lord and giver of life. Take only those four Psalms, the 8th, 18th, 29th, 104th, and learn from them what the old Jews thought of this wonderful world in which we live.
'These all wait upon thee' -- all living things by land and sea -- 'that thou mayest give them meat in due season. When thou givest it them they gather it. When thou openest thy hand they are filled with good. When thou hidest thy face they are troubled. When thou takest away their breath they die, and are turned again to their dust. When thou lettest thy breath go forth they shall be made, and thou shalt renew the face of the earth.'
So again, in the world of man, God is the living Judge, the living overlooker, rewarder, punisher of every man, not only in the life to come, but in this life. His providence is a special providence. But not such a poor special providence as men are too apt to dream of now-a-days, which interferes only now and then on some great occasion, or on behalf of some very favoured persons, but a special providence looking after every special act of man, and of the whole universe, from the fall of a sparrow to the fall of an empire.
And it is this intense faith in the living God, which can only come by the inspiration of the Spirit of God, which proves the old Testament to be truly inspired. This it is which makes it different from all books in the world. This it is, I hold, which marks the canon of Scripture. For in the Apocrypha -- true, noble, and good as most of it is -- you do not find the same intense faith in the living God, or anything to be compared therewith; and that for the simple reason that the Jews, at the time the Apocrypha was written, were losing that faith very fast. They felt themselves that there was an immense difference between anything that they could write and what the old psalmists and prophets had written. They felt that they could not write Scripture. All they could do was to write commentaries about it, and to carry out in their own fashion Moses' command, 'Thou shalt bind my words for a sign upon your hands, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes, and thou shalt write them upon the doorposts of thine house.' They were right in that; but as they lost faith in the living God, they began to observe the command in the letter, and neglect it in the spirit.
You know -- some of you, at least -- how these words were misused afterwards; how the scribes and the Pharisees, in their zeal to carry out the letter of the law, went about with texts of Scripture on their foreheads, and wrists, and the hems of their robes, enlarging their phylacteries, as our Lord said of them. But all the time they did not understand the texts, or love them, or get any good from them; but only made them excuses for hating and scoffing at the rest of the world. They had them written only on their foreheads, not on their hearts -- an outside and not an inside religion. They had lost all faith in the living God. God had spoken, of course, to their forefathers; but they could not believe that he was speaking to them -- not even when he spoke by his only begotten Son, the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person. God, so they held, had finished his teaching when Malachi uttered his last prophecy. And now it was for them to teach, and expound the law at secondhand. There could be no more prophets, no more revelation; and when one came and spoke with authority, at first hand, out of the depth of his own heart, he was to be persecuted, stoned, crucified. No. They had the key of knowledge; and no man could enter in, unless they chose to open the door. Nothing new could be true. John the Baptist came neither eating nor drinking, and they said, 'He hath a devil.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they said, 'Behold a gluttonous man and a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners.' And meanwhile the poor, the ignorant, those whose hearts were really in earnest, were looking out for a prophet and a deliverer -- often going after false prophets, with Theudas and Barcochab, into the wilderness; but going, too, to be baptized with the baptism of John, and crowding in thousands to hear our Lord preach to them of the living God of whom Moses had preached of old; while the scribes and Pharisees sat at home, wrapped up in their narrow, shallow book- divinity, and said, 'This people, who knoweth not the law, is accursed.' Nothing new could be true. It must be put down, persecuted down, lest the Romans should come and take away their place and nation.
But they did not succeed. Our Lord and his truth, whom they crucified and buried, rose again the third day and conquered; and the Romans came after all, and took away their place and nation. And so they failed, as all will fail, who will not believe in the living God.
My friends, all these things were written for our example. As it was then, so may it be again.
There may come a time in this land when people shall profess to worship the word of God; and yet, like those old scribes, make it of none effect by their own commandments and traditions. When they shall command men, like the scribes, to honour every word and letter of the Bible, and yet forbid them to take the Bible simply and literally as it stands, but only their interpretation of the Bible; when they shall say, with the scribes, 'Nothing new can be true. God taught the Apostles, and therefore he is not teaching us. God worked miracles of old; but whosoever thinks that God is working miracles now is a Pantheist and a blasphemer. God taught men of old the thing which they knew not; but whosoever dares to say that he does so now is bringing heresy and false doctrine, and undermining the Christian faith by science falsely so called.'
And all because they have lost all faith in the living God -- the ever-working, ever-teaching, ever-inspiring, ever-governing God whom our Lord Jesus Christ revealed to men; in whom the Apostles, and the Fathers, and the great middle-age Schoolmen, and the Reformers believed, and therefore learned more and more, and taught men more and more concerning God and the dealings of God, as time went on.
And then, when they see ignorant people running after quacks and impostors, spirit-rappers and table-turners, St. Simonians and Mormons, and false prophets of every kind, they will have nothing to say but 'This people which knoweth not the law is accursed.' While when they see anything like new truth, or new teaching from God appear, instead of welcoming the light, and going to meet the light, and accepting the light, they will say, 'What shall we do? For all men will believe on him, and then the powers of this world will come and take away our station and our order?' As if Christ could not take better care of his Church for which he died than they can in his stead! And so they will persecute God's servants, in the name of God, and call upon the law to put down by force the men whom they cannot put down by reason.
From ever falling into that state of stupid lip-belief, and outward religion, and loss of faith in the living God: Good Lord, deliver us.
From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness: Good Lord, deliver us.
From all false doctrine, heresy, and schism; from hardness of heart and contempt of thy word and commandment: Good Lord, deliver us.
For if people ever fall into that frame of mind (as did the scribes and Pharisees), and the good Lord do not deliver them from it, it will surely happen to them as it is written in the Bible.
The powers of this world will come and take away their place, and their power, and their station: but meanwhile the truth which they think that they have stifled will rise again, for Christ, who is the truth, will raise it again; and it shall conquer and leaven the hearts of men till all be leavened; and while the scribes and Pharisees shall be cast into the outer darkness of discontented and hopeless bigotry, the kingdoms of the world, which they fancied were the devil's dominion, shall become the kingdoms of God and of his Christ, and be adopted into that holy and ever-growing Church, of which it is written, that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it, for in it is the Spirit of God to lead it into all truth.
To which blessed end may God bring us, and our children after us. Amen.