“And David said to Abigail, Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, which sent thee this day to meet me; and blessed be thy advice, and blessed be thou, which hast kept me this day from coming to shed blood, and from avenging myself with mine own hand.” — 1 Samuel xxv. 32, 33.
*This date is an approximation of when this sermon was delivered.
I MUST tell you the story, for if you do not realize the circumstances, you will not understand these words. David was in the position of an outlaw in his country. He knew that he was one day to be king over Israel, but he had such reverence for Saul, the Lord’s anointed, that he would do nothing that should look like usurpation, or seem in any way to injure the reigning monarch. Some four hundred restless spirits, who had been impoverished by the tyrannical government of Saul, persons who were in debt, and generally discontented, came to him in the caves of Adullam, and there formed an army of freebooters of which David was the head. A little while afterwards two hundred others, men like-minded, came and united themselves with this force, so that David found himself at the head of an army of six hundred men of war, all of them valiant men, ready for exploits. You will see he was in a very difficult position; he must find work for these men; they were soldiers of fortune, and they must be employed, yet it was impossible for him to act like a traitor; he could not lead his men against his king; he could not begin a revolution, in order to provide for his followers.
What, then, must he do if he desired still to be loyal to the king, and, at the same time, not to disband his men? He occupied his forces in peacefully guarding the herds of the great sheep-masters who fed their flocks on the high steeps of Carmel. This is not a thing uncommon in the East even to-day. Certain sheikhs, with their body of followers, sometimes undertake to keep off the Bedouin Arabs, and other marauders who attack the flocks of the sheep-master, and of course they expect to have some kind of remuneration for their trouble.
Now, all through the time that the sheep were in pasture, David and his man watched over the flocks of a certain sheep-master called Nabal. When the time came round for shearing the flocks, David sent some of his followers to Nabal, to the feast of sheepshearing, presenting his request that some contribution might be sent for the support of his men on account of their having taken care of Nabal’s flocks, which otherwise would certainly have been diminished by systematic plunder. But Nabal had got all the good he wanted from David, and he refrained not from answering David’s messenger in a most uncourteous, surly manner. “There be many servants,” he said, “now-a-days, that break away every man from his master; shall I then take my bread, and my water, and my flesh, that I have killed for my shearers, and give it unto men whom I know not whence they be?”
Such a churlish message could not fail to nettle David; indeed, we know that it stung him to the quick. He had not run away from his master, but his master had driven him away, and as one who was apart from Saul, but yet was not Saul’s antagonist, he was doing the best he could to maintain the peace. His blood boiled over. “Have I guarded the flocks of this miserable wretch,” said he, “all this time, and kept my men there merely to attend his sheep, when they might have been profitable at some other work, and now, when I send to him, instead of giving me a donation, he answers me in this churlish manner?” Then, turning to his men, he said, “Gird ye on every man his sword, we will show this fellow how to treat us.” So, leaving two hundred men to guard the caves, four hundred marched out, David at the head, his hot blood all ablaze within him, his anger showing in his face. “God do so to me,” said he, “and more also, if I leave so much as a dog of that man’s house alive by the morning light.” He sallied forth doubtless with the full intent to destroy Nabal, to make his house a heap of ruins, and then to devastate the sheep-master’s estate. What a false position for a child of God! But David was naturally impulsive, and somehow men that have any life in them do sometimes get their temper roused. We hear of some people that are as quiet and as peaceful and as easy as a pond of stagnant water; certainly their peace does not flow like a river, and their righteousness is never lashed to fury like the waves of the sea. David was not one of these.
As the son of Jesse rashly pursues the man of Mount Carmel, he meets a woman, Nabal’s wife; perhaps a hard thought comes over him to smite her, but no— she is a woman, David cannot strike her, and, what is more, she is at his feet, asking him to lay all the blame at her door. Then she goes on to tell him that her lord is a very foolish and churlish man, and she hopes David will not take offence at his words. She has brought him a present, and she tells him that when he shall come to be king, it will be a great ease to his mind to think he never fought his own battles, but only the Lord’s. She reminds him of the future, and so she makes him forget the present. After a while his heart yields to quiet reflections; he acts rather as saint than as soldier, putting up his sword into the sheath, and leaving the matter with his God. Righteous vengeance was soon asserted, when barbarous revenge was stayed, for ten days afterwards Nabal died. The Lord himself dealt out retributive justice to the adversary, while the Lord’s servant was held back from indiscriminate slaughter.
That is all we shall have occasion to say about the narrative. It suggests our subject, which is “Preventing Grace,” the grace which God sends to prevent saints and sinners from running into sin. I hope before the service is over, many of us in looking back upon our past lives will gratefully bless the Lord: bless his providence, and bless the man or the woman whom he has sent to teach us, and to keep us back from evil: that we shall thank him because we have oftentimes been turned back from doing the wrong thing, and by an overruling counsel been led of him in the paths of righteousness.
Of this preventing grace we shall speak in two ways. We will deal first of all with the people of God, and with them but briefly, though they are the only persons who will ever be able to recognize the value and feel thankfulness for this precious benefit. Then we shall see how grace often prevents even men who are not followers of Jesus.
I. PREVENTING GRACE IS ENJOYED BY ALL THE PEOPLE OF GOD.
Dear friends, some of us can bless God at this hour that preventing grace came to us in the shape of a godly education. We heard no blasphemies when we lay in the cradle, no curses startled us from our dreams; many of us saw no drunkenness beneath the roof of our father’s house; no libidinous books were put in our way. Many of you were trained from your youth up to know the Scriptures like Timothy, and some of you have even heard something of the voice of God speaking to you as he did to Samuel. Blessed be God for a holy mother; blessed be God for an affectionate, prayerful father; blessed be ye of the Lord, ye that brought us forth for God, and blessed be your advice, for ye have kept us from many a sin.
Since then, preventing grace has come in the shape of godly associations; we need none of us be very proud of what we are, if we think what we might have been, had we been put in other positions. If, instead of being bound apprentice to a good master, and afterwards brought into association with religious people in the Sabbath-school, and in the Bible-class, and in the congregation, your lot had been thrown where you could pick up your education in the street and take your college degree in the coal-hole or the theatre, who can tell but you had been as black a sinner as those whom you now pass by in the street, wondering that they are so vile? Much of a man’s character comes from other men. What we are is not all of ourselves. We are deep in debt to others. Indeed, what man is there upon whom there have not been a hundred fingers to mould him and a thousand influences to make his plastic character what it is? I know that the grace of God is a thing that makes a man right before God, but I know, also, that holy associations (or ever grace comes into our heart to renew us) prevent us from indulging in sins into which, under other circumstances, we should certainly have plunged.
In extolling preventing grace, what shall I say, dear friends, besides this, of the providential circumstances which have kept us from sin? There have been times with some of us in our younger days before we knew Christ, when the temptation was very strong, but the opportunity was not near, and at other times the opportunity has been before our eyes, but there was no temptation. God help the man that has the temptation and the opportunity at the same time. Many and many a man has received the preventing and restraining grace of God when the devil has been hindered throwing the two dice at one time. It is of grace that at one time there has been the fire in the heart, but no fuel, while at another there has been the fuel but the fire did not burn just at that time so as to make it convenient or desirable for the man to sin. Oh, friends, the river of our life has been winding and tortuous in its course. Had it wound in another way, it had been very different from what it is, and, perhaps, a word— as we say, an accident, a chance hit— may have turned the whole of it. Now we can say that our moral reputation is unblemished, whereas otherwise we should have had to lament that we had been immoral, debauched, and depraved, if it had not been for this preventing grace of God working through providential circumstances.
There is a fountain which is the father of two rivers, and these two rivers both take their rise in a tarn at the top of a hill. Both rivers start from the same place, but when they end their course they are some five hundred miles apart. Behold this drop of water; there it lies. Which way shall it go? Shall it go down that stream and find its way to yonder sea, or down this stream to another destiny? It needs but a motion of a bird’s wing to move that drop either way, and it shall go rolling onward into yonder sea, or it shall find another channel and pursue its course far apart. So has it been with us. The grace of God— preventing grace— had much to do with the providence which puts us in such and such a channel, instead of casting us into another; that allowed us to come into contact with holy people rather than to associate us with the vilest of the vile. This is a hard blow at our self-righteousness. If we had not had our hearts changed and if providential circumstances had been a little different, we might have been lost ere now.
But besides the power of conversion to change life, how much believers owe to the grace of God exercised through trial and suffering! They would have gone astray, but they were barred down by affliction; they would have leaped the hedges of God’s law, but they were clogged by some adversity. Some men owe much to the fact that they were never in good health. A blind eye, or a crippled leg, or a maimed arm, may have been in the hands of God a great blessing in keeping some of you back from iniquities, in which otherwise you might have indulged. We never know what innumerable streams of good flow from that well which we call Marah, but which God often maketh to be an Elim to our souls.
“Determined to save he watched o’er my path,
When, Satan’s blind slave, I sported with death.”
I suppose, dear brethren and sisters in Christ, that in looking back you can say, “I can see the finger of God in a great many places where I might have ruined myself— there, and there, and there— though I knew him not, his arms were underneath me; he guided me with his eye, he led me by his right hand, that I might not be utterly destroyed.”
Now, Christian man, if thou couldest think of this a little, thou shouldest be very grateful indeed to God for this. I know if thou hadst sinned even more, the blood of Christ could wash thy guilt away; and if thine iniquities had been greater still, thou wouldest not have overreached the power of divine love. But think now how good it is for thee that thou wast not suffered— I speak of course only to some of you— to go so far. How much sorrow you have been spared! From what evil habits have you been saved! What temptations are now kept away from you which, if God had not kept you back from sin in former days, might else overwhelm you.
Perhaps there is a man here who is a Christian, and though he knows he is redeemed, he would give his right arm if he could forget his unregenerate days. There are some men who might say, “I would give my eyes if I could forget what they have seen, and lose my ears if I could remember no more what they have heard.” Why, there is a snatch of an old song that will come over you when you are in prayer, and when you are trying to get right up to heaven there is some old black remembrance of the merriment or dissipation of the former days that checks your flight, and is as a clog to the eagle, and will not let it mount. There is many a man who might have been a leader in God’s camp, who is afraid to come out, and who, if he had come out, would have but little force because of the weakness some old habit has brought upon him; he feels he cannot do what he would for Christ because of the past. If this be not your experience, then thank God for preventing grace.
I preached this morning to the chief of sinners, I was glad to do it, but whenever I do, I find some who wish they had been greater sinners, not because they love sin, but because they think they should then see a greater change in themselves when the grace of God lays hold of them. Instead of this, thank God most devoutly: you are big enough sinners as you are; there is enough of vileness and corruption, there is enough of base depravity, there is enough of abominable sin in you now. Thank God if you have not been allowed to give vent to the evil within you and run to an excess of riot. I write every day among my mercies that I was taught to run in wisdom’s way.
But, once again, dear friend, if you have not been permitted to run into outrageous folly, do not think that you are any nearer Christ because of this. Do not imagine that you are to be saved in any different way from the most outrageous drunkard or the most depraved of harlots. There is the same way to heaven for you who are highly esteemed among men as for the man who lies for his crime rotting in a gaol. I tell you, sirs, you who think you have done no wrong, you must go to heaven by the blood and righteousness of Christ, as much as the convict at the hulks; and when you get to glory you shall have no more right to boast of your own merits or your own goodness than the thief who went from the cross to glory, or that woman that was a sinner and loved much because she was much forgiven. “Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid,” and while it is cause for congratulation that you have not wandered so far into sin as others, it is also cause for trembling, for verily I say unto you, often publicans and harlots enter the kingdom of heaven before Pharisees. Some who were the vilest of the vile have come to Christ, have penitently accepted his righteousness, while others robed in their own righteousness have gone down to hell and perished with a double destruction, with the rags of their righteousness about them.
I hope I have in no way whatever said anything which on the one hand detracts from the value of an early religious training and preventing grace, nor anything on the other hand which detracts from the grace which saves the very vilest of the vile. I feel that sometimes, when, we are preaching, we seem to look after the scum and the raff, and we forget many others. I would not forget one of you, my dear hearers, who hear me Sabbath after Sabbath; God is my witness, if I thought I had missed any one of you I would be too glad to preach a sermon only for that one person, if I might but win his soul. What did I say? Preach a sermon! I would preach fifty sermons, I would preach my whole life but to win one of you, and think myself well paid with such a blessed reward for such easy toil. But whether you are great sinners or little sinners outwardly, remember you are all vile in the inner nature, and the same grace is presented to you all. “Whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely.”
II. The second part of our discourse is to be addressed to those who as yet have not experienced the grace of God in its constraining and quickening power. They, too, in a very real sense have received the preventing grace of God, for THE PREVENTING GRACE OF GOD IS UNIVERSAL.
Without the preventing grace of God to restrain man he would be unbearable, and if it were not for the preventing grace of God in society a nation would be an impossibility, and a well-ordered commonwealth would be a thing for which we might long, but should never be able to realize. Men would be little better we believe, than the beasts of the forest, tearing and devouring one another, if the grace of God did not keep them in check ; and this, I think, is proved by the fact that the further you recede from the light of the Gospel— the further you get from the agencies which preventing grace is most likely to use— the more cruel and savage men are, the one toward the other. I thank God that this is a land where preventing grace is felt even by the very worst. I do not believe there is a burglar or a murderer but has been the subject of it, but has had to strive against it and against his own conscience, before he could consummate his crime and give himself up to iniquity. You have had preventing grace keeping you back from sin. Sinner, if thou canst not thank God for this we can, we bless the Lord that he restrains you and does not permit you to be worse than you are. We pray that this preventing grace may never be taken from you, or else you shall be like some wild horse that has desired to dash over the precipice, who, when the rein is laid upon his neck, leapeth to his doom and destroyeth himself and as many as be attached unto him.
Yet, while it is universal, this preventing grace of God is by some men much detested and abhorred. Some can hardly tolerate the restrictions which Christianity has imposed upon the nation! they are vexed that they have to shut up shop on Sunday, and, by a sort of custom, are compelled to go and hear the Word of God; they wish they lived in some place where they could do just as they liked. The wife who wants her husband and family to go up and hear the Gospel is thought hardly of because of it. Some men would even like, if they could, to have a family that was all the devil’s; but somehow or other God will not let them have their way. The godless man gets a godly wife, and he is angry; by-and-by it turns out that one of the children receives God’s saving grace, and he cannot bear the thought of it. I have seen men in spiritual things just like madmen of Bedlam. God knew that these men would ruin themselves if they were let alone, so, first of all, he straightwaistcoated them with poverty, that they could not do what they would. Then, afterwards, when they began to tear and foam, he put them into a godly family, as maniacs are pub into a padded room, so that, dash themselves as they will, they cannot hurt themselves. These men cannot get loose, but they will strain at their bonds and foam and gnash because God has hold of them, and will not let the devil get the full mastery of them as they would like. O sinner, the day may come when God will say of thee, “Let him have his own way.” If he should give thee up, then thy doom will be sealed for ever and thy fate be more desperate than words can describe. God help thee, man, and keep thee from thyself, or else thou wilt soon destroy thyself and go post haste to destruction.
But to turn to a more cheerful view of it, in many persons this preventing grace leads to something higher. After preventing grace has kept thee back from sin, in comes quickening grace and shows thee the hatefulness of sin, and after that comes pardoning grace, and gives thee power to believe in Jesus, and, lo! thy sins are put away. May God grant that this may be the case with some of you who have got no further yet than preventing grace. Be grateful for that, thank God with all your heart for it. May it lead you to repentance; may it lead you to put your trust in Jesus and in him only! Then you will pass from the mere prevention in which grace is a shackle, to the liberty in which grace becomes a shield and a sword, the joy and the sun of your life. May the long-suffering of God lead thee to repentance!
But once again, to turn to the solemn chord once more, where it does not lead to higher things, preventing grace increases the responsibility of the man who receives it. If a man will go over hedge and ditch to hell, he shall find it a hard fall when he gets to the edge. If, when we put poison out of the way and remove everything with which a man can destroy himself, he yet will tear open his own veins, he is a suicide indeed; who shall pity him? And when God hedges you about, if you break the hedges— when he puts a bit into your mouth if you stand champing it until at last you get it from your jaws, and turn to your own way— this will not be done without bringing on your head at the last thunders of execration from the universe that shall judge you, and the full lightnings of wrath from the hand of God who shall condemn you. I fear there are some here who are sinning against light. You are not without warnings in this land, not without calls and wooing invitations; the time was when you might have gone into many of the churches in London and not have heard the Gospel so that you could understand it, but now in the comers of the streets and in the theatres you may hear it if you will; and God is my witness when I say there is one place where you can hear it preached with earnestness, and I rejoice to' know there are thousands of others. Souls, if you perish, it is not for want of invitations to Christ. If you will not have Christ it is a wilful rejection; if you will be lost, blame not the minister, lay it not at our door, we are clear of your blood, we shake our skirts of the dust of your souls, we will not be responsible for you; we warn you, we cry aloud to you, and if you will not hear, but will go and turn to the downward road, on your own heads be your doom for ever and ever.
But instead of enlarging on these and other paints, I will try, as God shall help me, to give you a little advice, in the hope that some who have come up, perhaps to a cattle show, or the Handel Festival, or the Great Exhibition, may get more than they came for; who could tell, some of you may have to say in time and eternity, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, which sent thee this day to meet me, and blessed be thy advice?”
Now, young man fresh from the country, you have a scheme in your head, and you are going to carry it out to-morrow. If my prayer for you is heard you will not do so. You have come up to London to have a merry time of it; you will have a merry time of another sort, I hope. Consider your ways. Bethink yourself. Why will you go wilfully, and with your eyes open, into that sin? It may be the last sin you will ever commit; it may be that you will die in the act. Great God! how prophetic these words may be! Am I pronouncing the doom of some soul here? Such things have happened, and it may be that they will happen again. Oh, I pray thee, friend, stay thy hand. Shall I fall down upon my knees and pray thee to stop, for an impulse is upon me to speak thus — do not, do not, it is for thy life. Back with thy hand, man, for fear of the viper’s tooth; thou art playing on the hole of the asp, but his tongue is ready and his fang shall envenom all thy veins. By God, by Christ, by heaven, by hell, I adjure thee, thou who has intended some sin, cease from it! May this advice be blessed to thee! Hast thou not had enough already? What, man! hast thou killed thyself, and is not that enough? Art thou a lost man to-night, and is not that enough? Wouldest thou bury deep in sin even thy last hope? The leprosy is in thee now, wouldest thou make it stare in men’s faces on thy very forehead? Oh, stay thee! stay thee! thou hast gone far enough, the wonder is that thou art spared seeing thou hast gone so far. What has all thine indulgence hitherto brought thee in? Is there real pleasure in sin? What has been thine experience up till now? Is it not a rough road, though it promised to be a joyous one? Have you not had already enough to bear as the result of your evil conduct? Why, therefore, continue to spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which satisfieth not? As the voice of one crying in the wilderness would I now seek to prepare the way of the Lord into thy heart. Cease thou from evil, man. Consider this thy sin and repent of it, for I hope that to thee the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
What if, instead of going into sin to-night, thou shouldest take my advice and seek the Saviour and find him. If God bless thee, thou shalt be saved; but if thou hast shut thine ear to God’s pleading it shall not be my fault. Man! man! thou art lost and ruined by the fall, but there is One that is able to save, even to the uttermost, those that come to him. To come to Christ is to trust him. I have preached this Gospel for many years, and I do not think I ever finished a sermon except in one way— by trying to explain what is meant by this simple trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. Young man, you have the idea that you are to do twenty things; you have been trying to get ready for Christ; that is not the Gospel, that is the law. The Gospel is, trust Jesus Christ, trust Jesus Christ. He died upon the tree that he might bear the punishment of the sins of all who believe in him. So to believe in him is to trust him. Trust him, and then it is certain that your sins were laid on Christ, and that he suffered in your room and stead. Come to Jesus, come to Jesus, sinner, come just now. What if this should be the time when the Lord shall meet with thee; write it down, ye angels, in your golden tablets, record the birthday of a soul; take down your harps, ye bright ones, strike the chords with a new and heaven-born ardour. Cherubim and seraphim, lift up your voices to notes untried as yet while God himself breaketh forth into a song, rejoicing in singing over them that come unto him through Jesus Christ his Son. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” Believe now, you in this area and you in these galleries. Oh! that you would believe in Jesus now! Thank God if you have not gone to the great lengths some have gone, but remember you cannot be saved except through faith in Jesus. If you have gone to the greatest lengths thank God you are not gone too far yet, for he can still reach you. He has a long arm, and he can find you in the very depths of your iniquity. Trust him, sinner, trust him now, and there shall be joy in heaven over sinners that repent more than over ninety and nine just persons that need no repentance. May God add his own blessing for Jesus’ sake. Amen.