Jeremiah 11. 1-13.
The subject I have on my heart to bring before you this evening, beloved, is one of exceeding solemnity for us all; and I pray God that both hearers and speaker may have the impress of it. The subject is declension, and I would seek to trace, as simply as I can, from Scripture, the source or rise, and the issue, of declension in the soul. I will say this at the outset with reference to declension itself, that it is never a momentary thing. Under no circumstances and on no occasion is departure from God a momentary thing with anyone of us; on the contrary, I state it positively, and say that it is gradual, and that the distance between the rise of declension and the issue of it is very much wider than some of us may at first suppose. I know the thought is common that it is some sudden temptation, that there are some peculiar circumstances of trial much more grievous than others, and much more pressing upon the heart than others, which bring about declension; but be assured it is not so. I quite own that circumstances do bring about, apparently at least, the full issue of it; but the seed is sown in the spring-time of declension, fostered and nourished in the summer of declension, and bears its natural fruit in the autumn of declension. That is to say, spiritual decline has its seasons just as we have the natural seasons which God has secured to us, just as there is the preparation of the ground and the sowing of the seed in spring, the ripening of it in summer, and the harvest in the autumn; so there is the seed-time, the summer, and the harvest of declension in the soul. And therefore the point for every one of us (and I speak, of course, especially to the young to-night, though it is important for the oldest as well as the youngest) is this, to be able to detect the beginnings of declension. A great many people are awakened up at the end, but it is in the beginning that it should be arrested.
Now you will find this all through Scripture (and I am stating now, first of all, general principles, which I will prove by Scripture presently), in addition to what I have said, that man has been always the object of blessing from God, and God has been always the source of blessing to man. I say that is a great fact that runs all through the word of God, Old and New Testament alike. But the instant that the blessing becomes the object of the one upon whom it is bestowed, the moment that God, the source of all, is displaced by His own gift, that moment declension begins. That is a simple truth which everyone here can understand. Let me repeat again that the creature has always been the object of the Creator, and the Creator, that is, the blessed God Himself, has been and is always the source of blessing to His creature. But the moment the favour which the Creator has bestowed (if we are Christians, of course it is our Father, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ), the instant the blessing given from God to His creature becomes the object of the creature, instead of the God who gave it, then, I repeat, you have the seed of declension sown in the soul. I shall tell you why: it is simply because you have displaced (and that by a very ingenious artifice of the devil), even by God's favour, the God who gave that favour. You see it is important for us to bear it in mind, that Satan can much more effectually displace God from the hearts of His people by one of His favours, than by some evil thing. Satan will never look for a bad thing if he can find a good one; and hence the need for us to be on our watch as to good and bad alike. To a certain extent every saint is afraid of bad things, he avoids them; but what Satan is doing is this, he is displacing God Himself from the place that belongs to Him in the hearts of His children, not by bad things, but by good. Let me refer to an illustration of that, just in passing. Have you ever been struck with this, that in the parable in Luke 14, it was not a single bad thing that hindered those who were invited from going to God's supper. All the things that engrossed their hearts were good things. Who would say that a piece of land was a bad thing, or five yoke of oxen to till it, or that entering into a relationship of life was a bad thing? And yet every one of these, the piece of land, the five yoke of oxen, and the wife that was married, all displaced the supper of God from the hearts of the invited ones. It is the good things which displace Christ. Oh, what a wile that is! What a stratagem of Satan! How ingenious! And that is the way hundreds of God's people have been caught. Many who would have been proof against the open, above-board, evil thing, are completely turned aside by a favour from God. It is so good in itself, and they can trace it so directly from God they say, "God gave me this. This is a thing that He has bestowed upon me. It is a mercy of His own giving." And so the heart is taken off its guard, so to speak, and the place of Christ, or the blessed God Himself, becomes occupied by one of His gifts.
And thus, as I have said, the first seeds of departure from God are laid down in the heart, and that is the reason why I have referred to this passage in Jeremiah to-night, for the sake of one verse. He says, "They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water." "I am displaced," He says "I have not my place in the heart of Israel. You have put me out of my place, you have forsaken me." That is the first thing, beloved friends. Do not be deceived in the least about it. You never go and hew out broken cisterns first. People never turn to the world first — they give up God first, they give up. Christ first. "They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters:" and then, "they have hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water." The first step is that God has not His place of supremacy in the heart. For us, as Christians, it is Christ; for Israel, it was Jehovah.
Has Christ got His place in your hearts? Is Christ supreme there? That is a solemn question for every one of us! And I do not say, beloved friends, for a moment, is He first? because I apprehend that will not suit Him. No; but is He all? Has He every place? The difference is very apparent. Suppose I say that Christ has the first place, the question is, who comes afterwards? If it satisfies the blessed Lord to take the first place in my heart, then I am at liberty to put next to Him whom I please. But if Christ has every place, then all that comes in there must come in under Him — that is the difference, and a mighty difference too. If Christ is the supreme sovereign of my affections and my heart, if He is enthroned king there, then all that comes in must come in under Him. If He is only first, then I can put whom I like next; but if He is all, then nothing can come in except in accordance with Christ, and under Christ. And I know you are not safe, you are on the ground of temptation, you are near to a slip, if Christ has not that place of entire sovereignty in your soul. If He has not the entire command of your heart I say you are not safe; you have begun the downward path, that is the commencement. And hence the wise man says, by the Spirit of God, "Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life."
Now there is another principle that goes along with this; and that is, that in this first step downward, this beginning of declension or departure from God, something is sought for self in almost every case. It would be a very interesting study for you to search the Scriptures as to that. If you will examine all the instances in the Scriptures, you will find that the moment the only true motive-power and object is no longer supreme in the heart, self comes into prominence; self-consideration, self-indulgence, something to gratify self, something to please self. I shall refer to one or two instances of it. Take the case of Noah; he planted a vineyard, and entered on a course of self-indulgence, and fell. Abraham goes down into Egypt in a famine; self-consideration brought him down there. The same with Jacob; he becomes weary, settles down at Shalem, instead of going on to Bethel; and what trouble did he not get into there ! And here was self-consideration again. Lot, in the same way; what trouble and sorrow he fell into through his seeking his own pleasure and profit in Sodom! You will always find it so; and it does not require a very great thing to separate the heart from God, and to hinder communion. It is a very small thing that will break communion. Nothing, thank God, can touch eternal life; but the very weight of a feather, as it were, will snap communion. Nothing can interfere with eternal life; if we could lose that, every one of us here would have lost it long since. There would be no hope for anyone of us; no, not one; save, of course, in the immense, wonderful grace of God. There is no limit, thank God, there; but, as far as we are concerned, if our safety as to eternal life depended upon ourselves, there is not one of us would be saved. Through the infinite grace and goodness of our God, it is entirely out of our keeping. But as to communion, and testimony, and pleasing God down here in this world, all that rests (of course it is the grace of God alone can help us) upon our own responsibility; and if there is no communion, no cleaving to Christ, there is no display of Christ in this world, but departure from Him, and then comes the seeking after "broken cisterns." It is wonderful how the links of the chain do fit into each other. You can hardly perceive the departure at first, but at last it becomes so apparent that everyone can see it.
And here may I say a few words very much on my heart, which I think God perhaps may make useful to the younger ones here. I have known many a young Christian to be persuaded by those who ought to have known better; for I regret to say it is very often the older ones who mislead the younger; it is very often those who ought to know better who are the occasion of stumbling to the younger ones. I have known many a young Christian to relax a habit that I thank God for an increasing appreciation of — I mean morning and evening reading of the Scripture and prayer. "I know there are some quarters where people have considered they have reached to such an advanced state that they can dispense with what they look upon as worn out, if not old-fashioned. Thank God some are increasingly old-fashioned about that. They feel the increasing blessedness of it. Surely as often as you can, as well, but do not give up that. I have known many a young Christian who has relaxed that blessed habit of prayer; for I do call it blessed, to seek His face morning and evening; such I have known to slip, almost immediately. I believe it is an immense thing, and of the very first importance, to begin and end the day distinctly with God. You may say, "I can begin the day with God without that;" but remember, if you are truly dependent, you will never object to the expression of it. Do you say, "It is not necessary"? I say, beloved friends, it is most blessed, it is wholesome, and it is refreshing. Nor is it small in His eyes, the distinct recognition that nothing in my heart has displaced that blessed One, that He is supreme there. But there is even more than this in connection with it. Have you ever thought that the devil sees it? You may say, "But then God knows my heart." Yes; but I say Satan does not; he has no knowledge of your heart, and your thoughts, and what is going on inside of you. If he did he would be equal with God; but he sees you on your knees, and it is a wonderful thing — if I take it even on the lowest ground — it is an immense thing for a poor, helpless, weak one like myself to be a witness in some measure of dependence upon God. It is a wonderful thing, and I thank God for it, that I can be there on my knees, a witness to the creature that lost his first estate through being lifted up and independent, of what the grace and power of God can do in a nature that is in itself independent; how that grace can produce that dependence which is in every way suitable to us. What do you find was the first thing that was said of Saul of Tarsus? What was the proof given that he was a new creature? What did the Lord say of him? Was it, "He is preaching?" Was it "He is giving forth the most wonderful account of all these new things that his heart has got hold of?" Oh, by no means! What then does He say? "Behold, he prayeth!" Christ has His place there now. What a wonderful thing for the devil to see that! For Satan to see his once prime tool, dependent! Was not that a glory to Christ, and an immense mercy for Saul of Tarsus himself? Was it a small matter for him to be so completely turned out of everything he was connected with, that he is now as dependent as he was formerly independent? I say, beloved friends, it is everything; and so I leave this little word with you. And I pray that God may deepen the habit a thousand times more in us than it is; and instead of loosening by one single thread that which God has made the means of blessing to His people so often in the past (and the tendency is to unloose everything in these days), I would fasten it tighter if I could. The Lord grant this to any of my younger brethren here to-night who may have been over-persuaded, by so-called advanced views or anything else, to abandon in the least the blessed habit I have been referring to. I for one cannot regard these views as advanced, except as advanced views downwards. It is quite possible to be advanced in the wrong direction. The Lord keep us in the remembrance of this simple fact, that it is everything for our souls (it is a help, and sustainment, and solace) as we are kept in the habit of dependence. I do not mean in any sense going through a routine, I am speaking of the thing that has life, and vitality, and distinctness about it, and as such, has been the means of blessing unspeakable to numbers of God's people from the very first.
Well, now, I will take two instances from Scripture to illustrate these principles that I have spoken of; and, as I go through them, no doubt the principles will stand out much more strongly before your heart, as you see them exemplified in practice. The first instance I would refer you to is in the 14th chapter of Judges, the case of Samson. And I will only say this with reference to Samson, that in order to understand the condition he fell into, we must understand the position he was previously in. You can never know how far a person has got away from God unless you know how near he has been; and you find a very striking instance of that in what the blessed Lord says in the addresses to the seven churches, "Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen." I must know that. That is to say, the place I have left is the measure of my departure. I find in the 16th of Judges what Samson left. I will only read one verse, the 17th, "Then he told her all his heart," etc. That verse shows you what Samson gave up. What was he? He was a Nazarite; and a Nazarite was a man who was completely and thoroughly separated to God.
Now mark this well, and let me press it earnestly upon you, that separation was the secret of his strength. The secret of Samson's power was his Nazariteship; and that meant that he was completely and thoroughly separated to God. The moment that he divulged that secret, he lost all his power. Now I am struck with this history, for this reason, that I find the blessed God succoured Samson even whilst he was being enticed by allurements; God was succouring him in a wonderful way up to the moment this seventeenth verse records. He had been enticed by allurements, turned aside by them frequently, and yet up to the last God helped him; but the moment he divulged the secret, God succours him no more. It is most solemn. The moment you lose your separation, God succours you no longer. Of course there is ever His recovering grace, blessed be His name for that; but that is not our subject to-night. That will be before us, the Lord willing, on the next occasion; but I am now speaking only of declension; and, oh, do let me earnestly press the solemn nature of it upon you. In this instance the secret of this man's wonderful strength was, that he was a Nazarite unto God. He did not touch wine or strong drink; i.e. he gave up all the joy of nature. He was God's altogether. Well, I say, as long as that secret was kept intact, as long as ever he held fast that secret between God and himself, as long as he did not allow Delilah into that which was in his heart, God helped him; but the moment he gave that up he was weaker than the weakest. Is not that very solemn, beloved friends? You may say, "Oh, but it was in a moment of extreme temptation that Samson gave up that secret!" Not so; let us go back over the history for an instant. What was the beginning of it? Turn back to chapter 14, and see what was the beginning of the declension in this man? You will find it in the first verse of that chapter. "And Sampson went down to Timnath, and saw a woman in Timnath of the daughters of the Philistines. And he came up, and told his father and his mother, and said, I have seen a woman in Timnath of the daughters of the Philistines: now therefore get her for me to wife." That is much farther back, let me tell you, than his sleeping upon Delilah's knees and telling her the secret of his heart. In this was the beginning, the seedtime, of the declension in his heart, which bore its fruit in the long run; even his want of discernment of the incongruity of being united with one who belonged to the enemies of God. It is, in a word, unholy association; and, beloved friends, how often that has happened. How many a pillar of salt there is amongst the saints of God as witness of the solemnity of it! How many a one has given up the truth of God in that very same way — entering into unhallowed association, and losing every feature of distinctness, and thus giving up all testimony. I do not mean merely in the relationships of life, but in everything. We are left here in this world, through God's grace, to maintain the principle of separation in everything, whatever it may be. I cannot limit it to any one particular sphere; it applies to everything. There is no way whereby the saints of God are more effectually allured from the place of simple separation to Him, and which becomes the glory of His Christ, than in this way of unholy association. It is this worldly principle which bids fair to destroy the whole testimony at this present moment, and therefore I warn my younger brethren about it to-night. Here was the beginning of all that Samson fell into afterwards — "Give me this woman to wife;" this woman of the Philistines. In the PROVIDENCE of God his wish was defeated, and God turned aside this terrible slip for a time. The woman was given to his friend; Samson did not get her. That was the PROVIDENCE of God. But when I say that, I am not in any wise making light of that which is entirely foreign to the path of faith for His saints. The providence of God is what God does here in this world to keep evil back, when everything is out of order. Everything is out of order in this world; the whole condition is disorganized, and in moral chaos and confusion; and I find the blessed God (who has not given up the reins of government, though He works as it were in secret) acting to turn aside that which would be opposed to His purpose. But faith, is the principle by which His saints track the divine path through the intricacies of present confusion. Faith alone can guide you and me. I thank God for His providence with all my heart; but still that is not the saint's guide along this world.
I tell you what has been said, and in truth too; viz., that this world is like a great lunatic asylum. You never could tell how a man would be treated in a sound mind from knowing how he was treated in an unsound mind. No one would treat a man in his senses as he would one who was insane. Even so is it in divine things. The providence of God is keeping evil in check; but while I own humbly the blessed sovereignty of God, I must be subject, and I must walk by a principle which glorifies Him, and that is faith. I thank God for restraint; that is what He is doing now in a world of evil; and that is why I compared this world to a lunatic asylum — all is under the restraint of God's providence. But how blessed it is when we walk with God! then we get motives and springs outside the whole thing. Faith becomes the principle and spring of our actions.
Now we see it was through the providence of God that Samson's wish was defeated for the time being; but how little he profited by it! His whole subsequent history shows that it was this very same principle of entering into associations contrary to God which led him step by step to the climax which we see reached in that seventeenth verse of the sixteenth chapter. Let us look again a little at that. First of all, he loves this woman in the valley of Sorek — this Delilah. His heart has wandered away from God. God is displeased; he has another object beside God. Look at the steps, how immensely solemn they are, and how they bring out the gradual nature of declension! He first of all loved the woman, and then he entered into temptation: he talked with her, listened to her insinuations, until at last his soul was vexed to death, and she forced him to tell his secret, and then his downfall is complete. Look at the solemnity of it. The Philistines come and cut off his locks, that wherein his strength lay, the sign of his separation to God and when the challenge comes from Delilah, "The Philistines be upon thee, Samson," he wist not that the Lord had departed from him. "I will go out," he says, "as at other times before, and shake myself;" then at last the moment that was too much for him was upon him, and he found he was shorn of all his strength. How solemn it is! Observe how the thing was gradual; it began with this question of unholy association; it waxed stronger and stronger in the cultivation of it, although he was warned, and received help from God, until at last he falls into the trap, he gives himself up completely to Delilah, loses the locks of his head, and falls captive into the hands of the Philistines; and the first thing they do is to put out his eyes, and he grinds in the prison-house. How many a saint of God is just like Samson! How many there are who have, as it were, slept on Delilah's knees, lost the locks of their hair, been shorn of their strength, had their eyes put out, and made to grind in the prison-house, the sport and the amusement of the enemies of Christ!
There is one point I cannot help mentioning here, though it is apart from our subject; viz., the hair of Samson's head began to grow again; his strength was thus returning, but he had lost his sight for ever, and in the end he perishes in the death he is the cause of to his enemies; having associated himself with the world, he must share its judgment!
I would, then, leave this instance with you, illustrating as it does the gradual progress of declension, proceeding from a small beginning, until the heart is right away from God. Many a one might say, "What harm is there in my being associated with such and such a one?" I say you have practically lost your Nazariteship when you do it; and, beloved friends, I am not speaking now merely of association with a person who does not belong to the Lord — an unconverted person. I look upon a saint of God in a very dangerous condition indeed who regards association with an unbeliever — either in business, or in the relationships of life — as the only thing to be avoided. Such surely ought to be so apparent to everyone of us as not to require a moment's consideration; it ought to be so distinct, so palpable, that we would not entertain the thought for a moment. But the truth goes deeper far than that, and hence I say to my younger brethren here to-night, beware of association with worldly Christians. Many a saint who has walked with God, and borne testimony for Christ, has been utterly spoiled, utterly turned aside, as regards testimony in this world, by association with those who were worldly and inconsistent in their ways and conversation, although they professed to be Christians. Therefore I warn you, beloved friends, I entreat of you, watch! The Lord, by His Spirit, impress the need of it upon our hearts, assuring us that nothing can really keep us except this Nazariteship to God; and that once it is abandoned or surrendered, or if the secret is betrayed to a stranger, the precious position is lost, and, like Samson, Jehovah has departed from us. Well may we say —
"'Tis only in Thee hiding
I feel myself secure,
Only in Thee abiding
The conflict I'll endure.
Thine arm the victory gaineth
O'er every hateful foe;
Thy love my heart sustaineth
In all its cares and woe."
It must be Christ first and last, the controlling and commanding object of our affections. I say we are not safe one instant save as He is that; and the proof of it, beloved friends, is this: when a person is really walking with the Lord, you will always find that instead of seeking company below himself, he will always seek company above himself — spiritually, I mean, of course. When I see a Christian seeking the companionship of those below himself spiritually, I say that person is on the road to declension.
We shall now turn to an instance in the New Testament. I shall only say a word or two about it. It is the history of Peter. You will find what I refer to in Luke 22. It is the same solemn history here, though in rather a different aspect. It is the history of a man who has overweening confidence in himself. Samson was self-indulgent, and Peter is self-confident — "Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death." I would ask you to notice just one point in this passage. Look at the difference between the work of the blessed Lord, and that of Satan. "Satan hath desired you [that is, all of them], but I have prayed for thee." "Satan wills to sift you — I have prayed for thee." Oh, think of that for a moment! "Satan wishes to get you into his grasp that he may sift you, but I have prayed for you; I have been beforehand; I have interceded; I have prayed for you, that your faith fail not."
Let me just briefly mark the steps that preceded Peter's downfall. The first thing was that Peter was sleeping instead of praying. I know very well it has been said he could not help it in his weariness. Beloved friends, it is wonderful, if a matter really had possession of you, how sleep would leave your eyes. It is wonderful, when the affections or heart are much engrossed, how sleep flies from the eyelids; and if Peter's heart, if Peter's soul, had been engrossed with the sorrows of Jesus, sleep would have pressed lightly indeed upon his eyes. But it was not so; his own sorrow filled his mind, and therefore he slept while the Lord was in agony.
Mark the next step. It is, that when the Lord is suffering, Peter is striking. The Lord allows Himself to be led like a lamb to the slaughter; Peter smites with the sword. First of all he sleeps in nature, and then he awakes in the flesh; he sleeps in nature, and he awakes in nature. Observe the difference: he drops asleep when he ought to be watching, and when he should have suffered he is smiting. How like unto many of us!
Then there is another step. The Lord is taken; and then we read that Peter went and sat down in the hall amongst the enemies of Christ, warming himself by the fire. Oh, beloved friends, think of that! While the blessed Lord is being buffeted, despised, reviled, ill-treated by men — whilst the enemies of Jesus are expressing the malignity of their hearts towards, Him, there is Peter, one of His own loved disciples, sitting down and warming himself by the enemy's fire! He has dropped down to the very lowest conceivable degradation of humanity — warming himself at the fire, in company with the enemies of Christ.
Well, mark what next. It only requires the jeer of a servant maid, and Peter denies his Lord with oaths and curses. I refer to it because of the gradual nature of the steps. It was not all in a moment of temptation; it was gradual. And so it is, beloved friends, with all departure from God. It begins in what we think small, and the thing goes on step by step — the first step the most difficult of all — until, like the man who said; "Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this thing?" the very thing we pride ourselves so much upon is the very thing in which we break down. I beseech you therefore to weigh these things before the Lord this evening. Oh, take them to heart! Remember the exceeding ease with which the heart can get away from God. Remember the multitudinous efforts of Satan to entice in every kind of way, and thus to catch unwary feet. One can only look to the Lord that He will, by His Spirit, keep that blessed One distinctly and only before our hearts, Christ Himself enthroned in our affections, first and last and all. Not merely, as many act, giving Him the first place, and then letting other things come in, but Christ all. We are only safe or secure as Christ has that place, because when it is so we are watchful. Whenever Christ is the commanding object, there is watchfulness. It is the person who has the treasure who fears it may be lost. If I have this treasure, I know the whole league of hell is pledged to rob me of it, and therefore I watch.
The Lord keep each of us watchful; and may we listen to His own blessed word which was spoken to His disciples, "What I say unto you I say unto all, Watch." "Watch and pray, lest ye enter into temptation." The Lord give His word a place in every heart here this evening, that, as we see what those principles are which precede declension, and what they lead to, we may take warning as we go along step by step, through Jesus Christ our Lord.