It sometimes happens that a stream is deflected from its course and turned in an opposite direction by a very small obstacle. Just as, not infrequently, a trifling event may completely alter a life or materially affect a career, and, in the same manner, we shall find, in the seven passages about to be quoted, a remarkable change of thought or action intimated in each case by the little monosyllable “but.”
The first is found in Ecclesiastes 11:9, “Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth, and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes; but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.” Can it be that the Spirit of God condescends to use irony, when the young man is thus urged forward in the pursuit of the natural inclinations of his heart, and in the gratification of the eye? Can there be, in this passage, a contradiction of the uniform condemnation of this very thing that is found elsewhere in the word of God? Can the sins that are everywhere denounced, in the plainest terms, be lawful here? Nay, there is neither irony, nor contradiction, nor allowance of sin. In reaching this point, and using contrast to produce its natural effect, the line of thought changes—the stream is deflected—by one little monosyllable, and the young man assured that “for all these things God will bring him into judgment.” “But know thou”, says the Spirit of God to the profligate, the drunkard, the worldling, “that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.” “Whatsoever a man sows that shall he also reap,” and just as surely as sin is sown so will judgment be the harvest.
“But,” says the young man, “these are the pleasures of sin, and are we not to be happy? Are we all to be gloomy and morose? Are we to have no pleasure?” Well, the pleasure that is bought at the cost of the soul, and that brings with it future punishment, if not present remorse, is dear indeed. Moreover it is not a question of pleasure, for there is a region of joy outside the province of sin that throws the transitory “pleasures of sin” into the shade. Come now, young man, be honest and tell me, whom you deem the happiest, the worldling or the true Christian? The man whose conscience is harrowed and stained by sin, or he whose sins are pardoned and who can look death, judgment, and eternity calmly in the face, who can truly say “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain”? As one of yourselves I ask you for an honest answer. Ah! your conscience bears witness that a course of ungodliness is one of misery, that the sinner is the dupe of the devil and is being fooled into hell. Think of being a fool for ever! “Fools make a mock at sin.” Well then, I say, that the pleasure which harrows the conscience, violates the word of God, and secures future judgment, is pleasure falsely so called. It is an ignis fatuus leading on to the bottomless quagmire. It is sugar in the cup of deadly poison. Young man, take your fill indeed, but know thou that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.
Now let us turn to our second illustration. We did esteem him, stricken, smitten of God and afflicted, but he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:4-5).
What a discovery for the now aroused and troubled soul to make, the soul that, with other sins, had been emphatically a rejecter of Christ, guilty—so to speak—of His blood, what an amazing truth for such to learn that the “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” who during His earthly life had not where to lay His head, and ended that life upon the cross of shame, there abandoned by His disciples, and, because of the burden of sins He then bore, forsaken by God Himself, forsaken but not forgotten, enshrowded in darkness but an object of infinite delight to the Father’s heart, stricken, smitten of God and afflicted—what a wonderful fact to apprehend that “he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities!” Ever blessed substitute! We adore Thy grace! Thou didst die for sinners. It was our iniquities that wrung from thy bosom the cry “My God my God why hast thou forsaken me?” “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” For no other reason did He die. The sinless one indeed, “but he was wounded for our transgressions … and with his stripes we are healed.” “The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin.” Oh! sinner think of this. What a flood of love follows our little monosyllable here, but he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities. It was followed by judgment in the first instance, by mercy here.
In continuation of this glorious theme we find in our third instance, “Though they found no cause of death in him, yet desired they Pilate that he should be slain, and when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a sepulchre, but God raised him from the dead” (Acts 13:32). As to the sepulchre of this blessed One, Satan, with man for his confederate, had things all his own way. When Jesus was born He was laid in a manger for the inn had no room for Him, and throughout His earthly career He was the constant object of Satan’s malice. The cross was the grand proof of this. Here the enemy thought to avenge the course of defeats he had suffered; here man too joined in the wicked cause, and the greed of hell was satiated when the “great stone” was rolled to the mouth of the sepulchre. The victory seemed complete. Death wrapped itself around the Lord of Glory. “But God raised him from the dead.” Hallelujah! Becoming interposition, suited answer to that life of devotedness! What else could await Him whom death could not hold? “The Lord is risen!” Thrilling words. Satan is abashed—death is overcome, and over the work of redemption are written the words “It is finished.” God raised Him. What an eternal rebuke to the enemy. He who was “delivered for our offences was raised again for our justification.” What rest for the troubled conscience! “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Our four remaining instances are in character similar to one another, each presenting God in the exercise and energy of His grace meeting the ruined condition of man. Thus in Psalm 130 we read “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord … If thou Lord shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord who shall stand; but there is forgiveness with thee that thou mayest be feared.” Here we find a soul in deep distress, crying out of the depths, and dreading lest God should mark iniquity, an experience not unlike that in Romans 7. There is an evident struggle, and perhaps an effort to conceal iniquity, a fear to make known the worst, and to lose the hope derived from iniquity not being marked. Such a hope is vain; such an effort is futile. God must know the very worst; there must be a full confession and a total and unreserved surrender. It is vain to conceal any part of the truth. Yet the soul shrinks from a full disclosure; it dreads retribution; it cherishes false thoughts of God, and its misery is deepened!
What a blaze of light pours in, however, when the soul can say “But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared!” Who is a pardoning God like unto thee? Why hide from such a God? The poor demoniac said to Jesus “I beseech thee that thou torment me not.” He had no other idea of the Son of the most High God than one of judgment. He little knew that Jesus had crossed the stormy sea of Galilee just to heal and clothe and befriend him. He did not know the true nature of God thus manifest in the flesh. He feared indeed, but had no hope of forgiveness—but now forgiven—or at least healed, he feared, and loved, and followed. There is the fear of torment; and there is the fear of forgiveness. How terrible the one! How sweet the other! Reader, mark the divine order “there is forgiveness with thee that thou mayest be feared.”
Again, let me quote from Titus 3:4-7, “For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving diverse lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another, but after that the kindness and love of God toward man appeared … that being justified by his grace we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” Notice the sevenfold description of man’s fallen condition, the exact and awful delineation of human depravity, guilt and ruin. What more complete than the word “hateful” and yet how true—how deserving of hate—as in Romans 1:30, “haters of God,” or, perhaps more correctly, “hateful to God.” Is not God “angry with the wicked every day?” Is not sin hateful to Him? Can He look on it? Yet observe the glorious, the surprising contrast, “But after the kindness and love of God toward man appeared.” Human depravity is exceeded by divine love—spite of all the well-merited judgment—the hateful condition; spite of all the tide of sin, the kindness and love of God appear, and by His grace He justifies! Dear reader your attention is called to this magnificent attestation to the divine nature. Weigh in your mind the two statements: balance the one by the other and see the astounding preponderance of the love of God over the guilt of man.
Such another passage comes before us in Ephesians 2. “You has he quickened who were dead in trespasses and sins, wherein in times past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the Spirit that now works in the children of disobedience; among whom also we all had our conversation, in times past, in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others, but God who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, has quickened us together with Christ.” Again we find sin met by love—God rich in mercy and great in love! This passage states more fully than even the previous one the extent of the fall—this speaks of death, that of sins—this of the state, that of the conduct—this of the believer being quickened, that of his being justified. But notice how the complete race both of Gentile and Jew is embraced—all equally guilty and spiritually dead—all children of wrath. But at this very juncture divine love declares itself! When dead in sins, it is then that mercy and love act, and by divine power the soul is quickened, and blessed beyond all measure. God Himself, apart from anything on the part of man, acts for His own glory and according to the grace of His own heart, and man becomes the debtor. It could not be otherwise! Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!
And now for the last of the seven. “But when he was yet a great way off his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran and fell upon his neck and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). The climax of all! How transcendent! See the prodigal, the “young man” who had taken his fill, and now returned empty, who had taken his own way and had been reduced to want, see him retracing his wilful way—slowly and humbly and just as he was—filthy and forlorn and fearful—at a distance indeed “but when he was yet a great way off his father saw him!” How was this? Ah! the father was on the outlook—love is always hopeful—and what then? “He had compassion!” and then? “He ran!” love is always energetic; and then? “he fell upon his neck!” Oh! that embrace! Distance, sin, self-will, prodigality, everything of the kind overcome! and then he “kissed him”—love is always intimate—a kiss is the emblem of nearest and dearest affection—the lovers token—and then? In the stillness of profound self-abhorrence, solemnly, fervently, irresistibly says the prodigal “Father, I have sinned … and am no more worthy …” Enough! love has won the day! and its happy prisoner is clothed and feasted amid the music of the Father’s house. Ah reader, leave God out, and what then? Let God have His way, and then? “God is love?’