(Isaiah 55:12, 13.)
"Now—the spirit conflict-riven,
Wounded heart, unequal strife!
Afterward—the triumph given,
And the Victor's crown of Life!
Now—the training, strange and lowly,
Unexplained and tedious now!
Afterward—the Service holy,
And the Master's 'Enter thou!'"
F. R. Havergal.
The wealth of God's abundant pardon is here set forth in metaphors which the least imaginative can understand. Not only were the exiles forgiven, their warfare accomplished, their iniquity pardoned; but they would be restored to the land of their fathers—"Ye shall go out... ye shall be led forth..." Not only were they to be restored; but their return was to be one long triumphal march. Nature herself would celebrate it with joyful demonstration; mountains and hills would break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field would clap their hands.
But even this was not all. One of the necessary results of the depopulation of the land of Israel was the deterioration of the soil. Vast tracts had passed out of cultivation; the terraces, reared on the slopes of the hills with so much care, had become heaps of stones; where corn had waved in the rustling breeze, or luscious fruits had ripened in the autumn sunshine, there was the sad fulfilment of the prediction, "They shall smite upon their breasts for the pleasant fields, for the fruitful vine. Upon the land of My people shall come up thorns and briers" (Isa. 32:12, 13). But this, too, was to be reversed. Literally and metaphorically, there was to be a complete reversal of the results of former sins and backslidings. Instead of the thorn would come up the fir tree, and instead of the briar would come up the myrtle tree; and it would be to the Lord for a name, for an everlasting sign, that would not be cut off. An everlasting sign! That surely indicates that sacred lessons are hidden under this prediction, which are of permanent interest and importance. Let us seek them in the light of other scriptures.
"Unto Adam He said, cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also, and thistles shall it bring forth unto thee."
"And the soldiers plaited a crown of thorns, and put it on His head."
"There was given me a thorn in the flesh... Concerning this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And He said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee."
Our thought naturally divides itself thus: The Thorns and Briars of Life; The Royalty of Suffering them; The Transformations of Grace.
In many cases we reap what others have sown; in some we sow for ourselves; in others we suffer from our neglect. We have failed to use our opportunities; and therefore crops of rank growth cover the acres of the past, and thistledown hovers in clouds, threatening the future.
Ill-health is surely one. Many of us, through God's goodness, have known but few days of sickness in our lives; others have known as few of complete health. Disease fastened on them in early life, has sapped their strength, is slowly working its way to the citadel of life. For some, the excesses of their ancestors—for others, their own—have sown the furrows with the. seeds of bitter harvests, which they have no alternative than to. reap. Dyspepsia, cancer, the slow progress of paralysis along the spinal cord, nervous weakness and depression—these are some of the many ills to which our flesh is heir; and they are thorns indeed. Paul's thorn was probably ophthalmia.
Bad children are another. Did David not mean this when he said that his house was not so with God; and that the ungodly, like thorns, must be thrust away with the armed hand?
Was he not thinking of Absalom and Adonijah, and others in his home circle? He was certainly describing the experiences of many a parent whose life has been embittered by stubborn, dissolute, and extravagant children. When the daughters make unfortunate marriages, and sons spread their sails to every gale of passion, there are thorns and briars enough to make misery in the best-appointed and most richly-furnished homes.
Strong predispositions and tendencies towards evil may be classed among the thorns. To be of a jealous or envious temperament; to have an inordinate love for praise and flattery; to be cursed with the clinging habit of impurity, intemperance, or greediness; to be of an irascible or phlegmatic disposition; and to be so liable to doubts that all the affirmations of fellow-disciples fall on dull and irresponsive ears—this is to be beset with thorns and briars, as though all the goodness of a field should go to waste in weeds.
Compulsory association with uncongenial companions in the workshop or the home. When day and night we are obliged to bear the galling yoke of fellowship with those who have no love for God, no care for man. When the enemy daily taunts, the sword penetrates to the bone, and the reproach eats like acid into the flesh; when we pick our way along paths thickset with traps, we know something of these cruel thorns. The old punishment of the men of Succoth at the hands of Gideon has its counterpart still: "And he took the elders of the city, and thorns of the wilderness, and briars, and with them he thrashed the men of Succoth."
Difficulties that bar our progress, like hedges of prickly thorns in some tangled forest, may be included in this enumeration. Competition in commercial life makes thorny the path of many a man of business. Perplexities and worries, annoyances, and vexations, fret us almost beyond endurance; the tender flesh is pitilessly torn, the heart bleeds secretly, hope dies in the soul; we question the wisdom and goodness of God in having made or permitted such a world where such things were possible.
Each life has experiences like these. Messengers of Satan come to buffet us all, making us ask the Lord—not once, nor twice, but often—if the stake may not be taken out of the flesh, and the soul set free to serve Him. Surely, we argue, we could live nobler and more useful lives, if only we were free. "Not so," says the Lord. "I cannot take away the thorn—it is the only means of royalty for thee; but I will give thee my all-sufficient grace."
It is very remarkable that the sign of the curse became, on the brow of Christ, the insignia of Royalty. The lesson is obvious—that He has transformed the curse into a blessing; that He has discovered the secret of compelling it to yield royalty.
There was some dim hint of this in the words of the primaeval curse on the ground, "Cursed is the ground for thy sake; thorns also and thistles it shall bring forth unto thee." What can this mean, except that there was an ulterior design in this infliction on the material world? It is not very clear what is implied in this sentence on the ground. Almost certainly there were thorns and thistles before Adam's sin brought a blight on God's fair world; but probably from that moment they became more prolific, or the conditions that had been unfavourable to their growth became more favourable, or malign hands were permitted to scatter their seeds afar. But, however it befell, there can be no doubt that God's purpose was wholly benevolent. Cursed is the ground for thy sake; that is, out of the obduracy of the soil, and its tendency to breed thorns and thistles, will come to thee the best and highest blessing.
Surely this has been verified. Where has man attained his noblest development? in lands where kindly nature has been most prodigal of her good gifts? where the soil has only needed scratching to yield a bountiful return? where life has been free from care, as that of bees among the limes? No, not there. By her, the bountiful provision of all they needed for their sustenance and comfort, Nature has enervated her children, men have become inert and sensual, ease-loving and muscleless. But where the soil has been unkindly, the climate inhospitable, the struggle for existence hard, the presence of the thorn ever menacing the cultivated patch, and threatening to invade garden or field; where every endeavour has been required to wring subsistence from the unwilling ground—there man has arisen to his full height, and put forth all his glorious strength of brain and sinew. It is through nature's churlishness and niggardliness, through man's long wrestle with her in the dark, through the bearing of travail and sorrow of toil, that the supple, crafty, characterless Jacobs have come forth as Israels, crowned princes with God.
Probably this is what is meant in the thorn-crown on the brow of Christ. It teaches that man can only attain his true royalty by meeting, enduring, and overcoming these elements in life, which forbode only disaster and loss. The purpose of God is wholly benevolent in the stern discipline to which He is subjecting thee. He has set thee down among those thorns to give thee an opportunity of changing the wilderness into a paradise; and in the act of transformation thou wilt suddenly find thyself ennobled and transfigured. Around thy brow the thorns—borne, mastered, subdued—shall weave themselves into a crown. Thou shalt glory in thy infirmities, and find a throne in the cross to which thou hast been nailed amid indescribable agonies.
What a magnificent conception this gives of the possibilities of sorrow! Too many estimable people fret against God's ordering of their lives, and his permission of the evils which afflict them. Like Paul, they are always praying to be delivered. But God is too good to answer these blind requests. The thorns remain; they must grapple with them, as did the old monks, when they chose some tangled swamp as the site of a new monastery. No alternative is afforded. And in proportion as we patiently submit ourselves to our Father's appointment, we come to see the reasonableness and beneficence of his design, and find ourselves adopting the thistle as our badge; we discover that it has been the means of unfolding and perfecting our character, of giving royalty and dignity to our demeanour, and making us kings by right of conquest, as well as by right of birth.
"Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree; and instead of the briar the myrtle tree." "My grace is sufficient for thee; my strength is made perfect in weakness." "I will therefore glory in my infirmities."
1. God gives us new views of dark things. What we thought was. punishment, turns out to be the chastening of a Father's love. The knife is not of the destroyer, but of the surgeon. What seemed to be unto death, is shown to be achieving a fuller life. The fire that had threatened to consume, only shrivels our bonds so that we walk freely over the glowing embers. We are permitted to stand beside God on the Mount, while He passes by and proclaims his name, and gives his reasons, and takes us behind his providences. That illness was sent to rid the system of a poison-taint that had else proved fatal. That child was permitted to be deformed by a terrible accident, because in no other way could she have been saved from a dark temptation, to which she must have yielded. That commercial disaster befell, because the young children of the household would have been enervated by too much luxury, The thorns change to myrtles when God shows his reasons.
2. God makes our sorrow and losses occasions for giving more grace. There are two ways of helping the soul bent double under some crushing burden. It may be removed; or additional strength, equal to its weight, may be inbreathed, The latter is God's choice way of dealing with his children, And if we were wise, we should not pray for the extraction of the thorn; but claim the greater grace. Oh, how precious the cross is then! How many a sufferer has had to bless God for pain! To how many the rack has seemed like a bed of down, and the torture-chamber the vestibule of heaven! Thorns, under such emotions, are changed to fir trees, and briars to myrtles.
3. The grace of God actually transforms awkward and evil dispositions, both in ourselves and others. Softness becomes meekness; cowardice gentleness; impulsiveness enthusiasm; meanness thrift; niggardliness generosity; cruelty consideration for others; irritability and vehemence patience and long suffering. God did not destroy the Roman Catholic pulpits at the Reformation—He did better, He filled them with Gospel-preachers. Similarly, He does not destroy any of our natural characteristics, when He brings us to Himself; He only eliminates the evil and develops the good. The evil tenant goes forth, making room for the new and holy spirit. Where sin had reigned unto death, grace now reigns unto eternal life. The thorns of passion and temper are replaced by fir trees, and the briars by myrtles. He takes the heart of stone out of our flesh, and gives us a heart of flesh. "In the habitation of jackals, where they lay, is grass with reeds and rushes."
How glad is the wife, when, instead of the brute-like cruelty which reigned in her husband's life, there is gentleness and consideration! How rejoiced is the mother Monica, when her Augustine is no longer the slave of passion; but clothed, subdued, restored to his right mind, and seated at the feet of Jesus! How significant of the power of Christ, to see a nation of savages so transformed that the arts of civilization and the practices of Christianity flourish, where once the cannibal dance and demon worship held undisputed possession.
4. When the discipline has done its work, it is removed. The Great Husbandman knows well the delicacy of the grain, and He will not always be threshing. Thou hast had thy full experience of thorns and briars, and hast borne and not fainted; but now, since the lesson has been learnt with lowly submission, the discipline will be removed. Thy Joseph lives, and thou shalt see him again and clasp him to thine arms. Thou shalt embrace a Samuel, whose prattle will make thee forget the smarts of the adversary. Thou shalt receive seven times as much as was swept away from thee so suddenly. Thou shalt come again out of the land of the enemy. Instead of the thorn, the fir; instead of the briar, the myrtle: because they have accomplished the purpose for which they were sent.
These glowing predictions were partially fulfilled in the restoration of Israel under Ezra and Nehemiah; and no doubt they would have been more fully realized if there had been more perfect faith in the Divine promises.
These glowing words, however, shall be perfectly fulfilled in those coming days when Israel shall turn to the land from all lands whither her people have been scattered. Their conversion, the apostle tells us, shall inaugurate the times of refreshing, of which the prophets have spoken from the beginning of the world. Then will creation be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. Then shall the mountains be orchestras of songs, and the trees vocal with melody. Then shall the ancient curse be removed from off the earth, and the malignant influence of the great enemy of God's work be for ever at an end. Then shall earth smile and sing, as in the day of her creation. It shall be to the Lord for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. And the story shall be recited through the universe, for evermore, of the sufficiency of God's love to cope with and overcome every manifestation of evil and self-will that may rear itself against its sway.
—Christ in Isaiah