Man’s Extremity, God’s Opportunity
“For the LORD shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants, when he seeth that their power is gone, and there is none shut up, or left.” — Deuteronomy xxxii. 36.
THE same event may happen alike to all, yet it may have a very different meaning to different individuals. Ungodly men are brought low by affliction or poverty, for sinners have no immunity from suffering. Saints also are led into trying circumstances, for the utmost holiness will not preserve any man from trial. But what a difference there is between the downfall of the prosperous sinner and of the man whom God loves! The wicked man, who continueth in his wickedness, falleth for ever; but the righteous man, though he may fall seven times, riseth up again, for he shall not fall finally. How dreadful is the language of Jehovah when speaking of the ungodly! “To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste.”
The wicked man, who prospers in this world, carries his head very high; he is proud and conceited, and he treads the poor under his feet. His career seems to be one of uninterrupted prosperity; higher, and higher, and higher, and yet higher he mounts; he becomes more wealthy and famous, and, meanwhile, he also becomes more boastful, and more arrogant towards God. He asks, “Who is the Lord that I should obey his voice?” He breathes defiance against the Most High; his heart grows harder and harder, like the heart of Pharaoh. Do you see where he is now? He has climbed to the very mountain’s brow; he is rejoicing that he has reached the topmost pinnacle of fame. Who can ever pull him down from that height? Who can even disturb his peace? Wait a while, tarry but a brief season. High places are full of danger, and the terrible prophecy shall yet be fulfilled in his experience, and in that of many others who are like him, “Their feet shall slide in due time;” and when men in such a position do begin to slip and slide, their fall is irrevocable. Down, down they go, falling from precipice to precipice, until they are utterly broken in pieces. Am I addressing any man who thinks that he is beyond the reach of the arrows of the Almighty? Ere another week has passed over your head, sir, you may lie gazing into eternity, and the joints of your loins shall be loosed as you begin to realize that you must so soon stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Vain, then, will be all your wealth and all your wit. You may now deride the godly, who seek mercy at the hands of God; but, then, you will cry out worse than they have ever done. You have often, in your pride, mocked them in the hour of their distress; but, in the day of your calamity, it may be that, ere you shall have even time to present one prayer to God, your foot shall slide, you will find yourself lost, and for ever have to wring your hands in anguish at your own folly in having despised eternal love, and rejected the mercy of God in Christ Jesus.
I would not change places with the greatest man who is living without the Saviour; if I could have the whole world given to me, if I could be the possessor of a thousand worlds, and yet live for a single moment without having my sin forgiven, and without the love of God shed abroad in my heart, it would be a living death to me. I think it should be so with each one of you, and it would be if you carefully thought the matter over; and I invite you to do so, and I earnestly ask you to imagine how dreadful must be the doom of an ungodly man. When he dies, he sinks into the abyss of hell. When his light goes out, there is no means of lighting it again; the tenfold midnight, thick as Egypt’s darkness, shall never be broken by the gleaming of a solitary star of hope. I want you to think all the more of this solemn truth because I am going to speak of others, who do fall very low, and suffer very much, yet, after all, their descent is followed by an ascent, their declining leads to a revival, for, according to our text, “the Lord shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants, when he seeth that their power is gone, and there is none shut up, or left.”
I. I shall apply the text, first of all, to THE LORD’S OWN CHURCH.
It may relate to any sorely-tried church. I may be addressing some brethren, up from the country, who are members of churches that are sadly declining. If that is the case, let me remind you, dear friends, that God may have a true church which is very severely tried. The track of the ship of the Church has lain full often over very boisterous waters. Sometimes the sea has seethed and the billows have boiled through the fury of persecution; the prow of the vessel has been crimsoned with blood, but onward has she moved. Still has the divine wind speeded her on her way; and, despite the kings of the earth, and all the infernal tortures that Rome’s inquisitors could invent, the sturdy ship has gone straight on towards her desired haven. The days of persecution have not yet ceased, but when any churches are brought very low through the attacks of cruel enemies, there is still hope for them in this promise of the living God.
What is far worse for a church even than persecution, it may be minished and brought low through the folly of its own members. Mine eyes could weep day and night over some churches that I know, which seem to me to be determined to commit spiritual suicide. They fall to quarrelling, when they are weak enough already, and need what little strength they have for fighting against the common foe. Often, they divide into parties about nothing at all; and where there should be unbroken brotherhood, there is an absence of anything like Christian love, and therefore the Spirit of God departs from them.
Many churches are, alas! brought low through a faulty ministry. A ministry, that does not ring out, in tones as clear as a clarion, “Salvation by grace, through faith in the precious blood of Jesus Christ,” is an impoverishing ministry. If there is no nourishing food for the soul, how can it be in spiritual health? Where will the gathering of the people be if the Shiloh is not present? If Christ be absent from the assembly, is not everything lacking that can build up a true Christian church? In many and many a place that I wot of, the members of the church have become few and feeble because the ministry has not fed their souls. And, sometimes, a church may get down so very low that it appears as if it would become altogether extinct. One is afraid that the doors of the chapel will have to be closed, that the altar-fire will go out, and that the testimony for God will cease in that particular hamlet, or village, or township.
Now, brethren, if any of you are members of such a church as that, what you have to make sure of is that it is a church of Christ, and that you are God’s people and God’s servants, for our text speaks of God’s favour to “his people” and “his servants.” This passage does not apply to every nominal church, nor to every conglomeration of merely moral men who call themselves Christians; but it does concern every real church of God, however low it may have been brought.
When you are in such a state as this, what you have to do is to lay the condition of the church to heart, and to cry unto God to raise it up again. Use every possible and right means to bring a revival; but if your way is blocked up, and there seems to be no possibility of success attending your efforts, then fall back upon this text, and plead it with God in prayer: “For the Lord shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants, when he seeth that their power is gone, and there is none shut up, or left.”
For, next, if you pray in faith, God will return to you. I believe that half-a-dozen persons, with vital religion in their souls, and really in earnest, may pray a church right out of any ditch into which it may have fallen, or bring it up even from the sepulchre where it has been buried, and make it live again in fulness of life; only there must be an intense determination that it shall be so, and real anguish and travail of soul until the desired end is attained. The fact that the church has come to her extremity of weakness should cheer you, rather than drive you to despair; for when a thing is so low that it cannot get any lower, there is some consolation in that fact. Now is the time to hope that the tide will turn; if it has ebbed out to the very uttermost, now let us trust that it will soon begin to flow again. I do not know whether the common saying is true, that the darkest hour of the night is that which precedes the dawn of day; but let us hope that it is so with your church, and that, when it has got very, very, very low, it has reached its limit of weakness, and that God will raise it up again.
There are some friends, whom I meet every now and then, who tell me that there are very dreadful times coming upon the world; I am not sure that they are right in all their forecasts; but one thing I do know, and that is, if ever the Church of God should get into a worse state than she has ever yet been in, if I am alive at such a time, I will still call together the last half-dozen faithful ones if I am one of them, and I will get them to read with me this verse, “For the Lord shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants, when he seeth that their power is gone, and there is none shut up, or left.”
You remember that, when John Huss was being burned to death, he said, “Within a hundred years, there will come a man whom the persecutors will not be able to burn.” The name Huss signified goose, and he said, “there will come a swan that you will never be able to roast;” that was Martin Luther, who was many times in great peril, and yet was not killed by the persecutors. When he was converted, the world was as dark spiritually as it well could be; yet God then found, even in the monastery, a monk whose preaching of the gospel shook the world. Never be afraid of the ultimate issue of the great battle; God will beat the devil yet. Never admit into your mind thoughts that shall lead you to despond concerning the end of the conflict. The battle is the Lord’s, and he will give the victory to his gospel yet. If some of the young people here should live to see all those who now preach the gospel laid in the silent grave, if any of you should live to see this place of worship empty, if ever this pulpit should cease to resound with the gospel of Christ, do not give up hope, my brethren; still stick together, even if there are only a few of you left, and cry mightily unto God, pleading the promise of our text, for he will remember you, and will “repent himself for his servants,” and his cause shall yet again revive.
II. Now, in the second place, I want to show you that our text is applicable to THE TRIED BELIEVER. I may be addressing someone to whom these words of Moses shall drop as the rain, and distil as the dew.
Beloved brethren, God may bring his people, in the order of his providence, into such a state that “their power is gone.” Apparently, they are in such a condition that they are quite unable to help themselves. They have struggled against many difficulties; but, at last, the difficulties have proved more than a match for them. All earthly help has quite failed them; to quote the words of the text, “their power is gone, and there is none shut up, or left,” — no garrison left in the city, no soldier left in the field, no helper anywhere. You may be like Job, who had no friends left, except the miserable comforters, who spoke more like enemies than friends. You are not the first of God’s servants whose power is gone, and whose friends are gone. The worst about your trial may be that it may seem to you, and seem truly, that some of your suffering is the result of sin. You may not have been walking with God as you ought to have done, your heart may have grown cold; so that which has come upon you may be a chastisement for your wandering, it may be a rod in the hand of your loving Father, smiting you because of your folly. But I beseech you, now that all human power is gone, do not run away from God, but fly to him. Do not give up your hope in him. However deplorable your circumstances may be, let them drive you to God, and not from him. Your only hope now lies in the compassion of your God. Let me read this text again to you, and I pray that your faith may enable you to grasp it: “for the Lord shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants, when he seeth that their power is gone, and there is none shut up, or left.” There is a gracious purpose behind your present trial, even though you do not yet perceive it.
It is possible that it was absolutely necessary that you should be brought as low as you are in order to cure you of your sin. You have come to your last shilling, have you? I have known a doctor to keep his patient almost without food, and bring the man down very low in order to starve out the complaint from which he was suffering; and in a surgical case, the knife has had to go in very deeply so as to get at the roots of the cancer. In like manner, it may be that it was necessary that your affliction should not be stopped midway, but should be allowed to proceed to the bitter end, in order that it might be the means of curing you of the evils which were rankling in your spirit.
Possibly, too, the affliction was permitted to develop to the uttermost in order that you might be induced to return to your God. It may be that, in your prosperity, you had grown so careless and so fond of the world, and you had so little delight in God, that it was necessary for you to have your gourds withered, and your flowers all made to decay, in order that you might, in your abject distress, turn again unto your God.
Or it may be that God intends that you should for ever bear a testimony to his faithfulness such as no ordinary man can bear. Those people who only sail in a little boat on a lake have no stories to tell of adventures at sea; but he who is to write a book describing long voyages must travel far out of sight of land, and behold the sea in the time of storm, as well as in a calm. You are to become, perhaps, an experienced Christian, you are to bring great honour to God by being the means of comforting others who will be tried in a similar way to yours, you are to be trained into a hero, and that cannot be done except by great and bitter griefs coming upon you. I believe that there are some of us whom God cannot trust with much joy. If we carry much sail, his wisdom and his love compel him to give us much ballast also, or else we shall be blown over. There must be many a man who knows within himself that he cannot be trusted with success. His head would turn dizzy if he were set upon a high pinnacle, and he would get proud, and self-sufficient, and so be ruined. God will not kill his children with sweets any more than he will destroy them with bitters. They shall have a tonic when they need it; but when that tonic is so bitter that they seem as if they could not drink it and live, their Lord will either take the tonic away, or give them some delicious sweetness to remove all the bitter taste.
I will read the text to you again; I cannot preach from it as I should like to do, but the text itself is full of comfort to the Lord’s own chosen ones who are in sore straits: “For the Lord shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants, when he seeth that their power is gone, and there is none shut up, or left.” Tried child of God, I wish I could grasp thy hand in tenderest sympathy, and whisper in thine ear, “In thy lowest moments, do not despair. ‘Hath God forgotten to be gracious? hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies?’ Nay, verily, ‘for the Lord will not cast off for ever: but though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies.’ ‘Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.’ The Lord himself saith to thee, ‘I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee;’ ‘when thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.’ ‘He shall deliver thee in six troubles: yea, in seven there shall no evil touch thee.’ Therefore, if thou walkest in darkness, and seest no light, trust in the Lord, and stay thyself upon thy God, for he will have compassion upon thee; he will take away his wrath, and smile again upon thy soul, and turn thy lamentation into singing, and thy mourning into dancing.”
III. This must suffice for the tried child of God, for I want to show that the text also applies to THE CONVICTED SINNER.
Are there any of you who cannot say that you are the children of God, but who wish that you were? I said to one, the other day, “Are you a Christian?” and he replied, “No, sir; but, oh! how I wish that I were!” When I heard with what emphasis he spoke, I thought that he must be not far from the kingdom; for is not he who wishes to be a Christian, almost one already? Is there not the beginning of a work of grace in his heart which the Holy Spirit will carry on to completion? So I will read the text now to you who wish to be saved, but fear that you shall not be, for you have such a dreadful sense of sin: “For the Lord shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants, when he seeth that their power is gone, and there is none shut up, or left.”
Do these words describe your present condition? First, is your self -righteousness all gone? A few months ago, you were a fine fellow according to your own estimate; you thought that there were few as good as you. But, to-night, you came slinking in as if you felt afraid even to sit down with the people of God. You remember that line of the hymn, —
“Then look, sinner, — look unto him, and be saved,” —
and you feel that you would like to look to the Crucified One, you can go as far as that, but you cannot yet say that you have looked unto him, and that you are saved, for you have such an awful sense of your guilt in the sight of God. I know you, my friend; I “know the heart of a stranger;” for such was my heart in the time of my conviction on account of sin. Oh, the heaviness of a guilty conscience! Oh, the long, dark, dreary winter of the soul, when sin blots out the sun, turns even mercy into misery, and sorrow makes the day into night! Ah! I know you, my brother; your self-righteousness is all gone, and I am glad of it; I rejoice that the Lord has broken the iron sinew of your neck, and that your fine feathers and ornaments have all been stripped off you, and that you have put on sackcloth in place of your former comely array. The Lord help you to keep it on till Jesus Christ takes it off, for it is fit livery for a sinner to wear!
Then, next, you say that your power is all gone. Not many months ago, you thought that you could believe in the Lord Jesus Christ whenever you liked, that it was the easiest thing in all the world to become a Christian, and that you would trust the Saviour, some fine day or other, whenever you pleased. Yet, at this moment, you are sighing, “I would, but can’t believe. Lord, relieve my load of guilt. All my help must come from thee.” You are the gentleman who was going to conquer his evil temper, and give up his bad habits, and be a saint, and do it all yourself! Oh, yes, yes! then, you thought you could do anything and everything, but now you have come to realize that, apart from Christ, you can do nothing. Only the other morning, when you got up, you prayed to God, and you thought that you would lead a very good life throughout that whole day, yet you were out of temper before breakfast was over. You went to your business, and you were going to be quite an example there; and a pretty example you were! You felt that, as you went home at night, all your attempts to be better, and to do right, had failed. I am glad you have learnt your weakness, and I hope that your consciousness of weakness will become deeper and more painful still; for, until every bone in your body is broken, I am afraid that you will not turn to God. You are, I fear, one of the men who, as long as they can lift a little finger to help themselves, will still put all their trust in that little finger, and will not turn to the Strong for strength. To cure them of that evil, you must grind them to powder; you must do with them what Solomon says concerning the fool, bray them “in a mortar among wheat with a pestle,” before you can get this folly of supposed self-strength out of them. Even, then, sometimes, every atom of their ground and pounded being seems still to say, “I am somebody, after all.” So, it is a blessed thing when God makes us to know that all our power is gone.
Is my text true concerning any of you? “Their power is gone, and there is none shut up, or left.” Are you brought to such a pass that you have not anything in the whole world that you dare to rely upon? You look back upon all your church-going and your chapel going, but you dare not rely upon them, for you feel that you have been a hypocrite in the house of God, and that your heart has not been right towards him. You look back upon your attempts to pray, — for you have been trying to pray lately, — but you feel as if you could not pray aright, the words stuck in your throat, and the very desires were dead within your spirit. Have you come to such a pass that, when you read the Bible, it condemns you; and when you hear the gospel, the preacher seems as if he excluded you from its provisions? Is it so? Is there no ray of hope for you anywhere? You used to have some kind of hope in reserve, some secret, mysterious confidence that still buoyed you up: is that all gone? Do you realize that you are lost? Do you know that the sentence of death has been pronounced against you? Do you even begin to wonder why it has not been executed? Do you seem to feel in your heart the working of the Spirit, as if even now he would take you away, and cast you into hell? Blessed be the Lord if you have come to such a pass as that! Your extremity is God’s opportunity. The difficulty all along has been to get to the end of you; for when a man gets to the end of himself, he has reached the beginning of God’s working. When you are cleaned right out, and have not anything at all left, then all the mercy of the covenant of grace is yours. I may have doubts about whether God’s grace will be exercised in certain cases; but I cannot raise any question about the freeness of divine grace to a soul that is empty, to a soul that is ready to perish, to a soul that is enquiring after God, to a soul that is hungering and thirsting after righteousness. If you, poor sinner, are covered with leprosy from head to foot; if, though the priest should thoroughly examine you, he would have to declare that there is not one sound speck in you even of the size of a pin’s head, let me tell you what the law itself says, — you are clean; therefore, go your way. When once your soul is so conscious of your sin that every hope of salvation by your own works is entirely abandoned, and you feel that you are utterly condemned, then is Jesus Christ yours, for he came, not to call the righteous, but sinners. So, accept him as yours; take him, receive him now. He is made of God fulness to our emptiness, righteousness to our unrighteousness, life to our death, salvation to our condemnation, all in all to our poverty, our wretchedness, our sin.
Now let me read the text to you yet once more, and see if God the Holy Spirit does not press it home upon your conscience and heart: “For the Lord shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants, when he seeth that their power is gone, and there is none shut up, or left.” There is no hope for you except in the pity of God, no hope except in his mercy, and no hope of mercy except in the freeness of his mercy; and no hope even of the freeness of mercy except in the sovereignty of God, who hath mercy on those upon whom he will have mercy, and who gives his grace to the most unworthy, that it may be proved to be all the greater grace because it saves the very chief of sinners. If there is one of you who says, “I am the most unlikely man in all the world ever to be saved; I have the least claim upon God of any man that lives; the only claim I have is the right to be damned, for I have so grievously transgressed against God; I feel myself to be so guilty, that my only claim upon justice is the demand to be tried, condemned, and executed;” — if you really mean what you say, then you are the man to whom the gospel of the grace of God is specially sent, for it is written, “when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good (a benevolent) man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” He gave himself for our sins, not for our righteousness; and he himself said, “They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Trust Christ, thou who darest not trust thyself. Fling thyself, all broken to pieces, at the feet of the broken-hearted Saviour, and he will turn again, and have compassion upon you. Yea, look unto him, and live, for —
“There is life for a look at the Crucified One;
There is life at this moment for thee.”
Give but one believing glance at that dear dying Son of God, and thou shalt hear him say to thee, “Go thy way; thy sins, which are many, are all forgiven thee.” The Lord grant it, for his name’s sake! Amen.