Jesus in the Hour of Trouble
Charles H. Spurgeon
This updated and revised manuscript is copyrighted ã 1999 by Tony Capoccia. All rights reserved.
‘As they pass through the Valley of Baca, They make it a spring;
The rain also covers it with pools.’—Ps. 84:6
Pilgrimage to an appointed shrine seems to be an essential part of most religions. The tribes of Israel made yearly journeys to Jerusalem, that at one great altar they might sacrifice unto the Lord their God. Borrowing the idea, probably, from the Jews, we find false religions inculcating the same. The disciples of Brahma are required to undertake long and painful journeys to the temple of Juggernaut, or to the banks of their sacred river, the Ganges. The Mohammedan [Muslim] has his Kebla of worship; and, if he is thoroughly a devout follower of the false prophet, he must, once in his life, offer his petitions at Mecca. And who has not heard of the palmer [A medieval European pilgrim who carried a palm branch as a token of having visited the Holy Land] plodding his weary way to the Holy Sepulchre, or of the Canterbury pilgrim going to the tomb of Thomas à Becket?
But the religion of God, the revelation of out most merciful Father, does not deal with man this way. It prescribes no earthly pilgrimage. It knows nothing of local restrictions. It declares that ‘you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father;’ that ‘God is spirit,’ everywhere present, and as a spirit ‘must be worshipped,’ not merely by outward acts, but ‘in spirit and truth.’
Yet ‘pilgrimage’ is one of the leading ideas of Christianity. Every Christian is mystically a pilgrim. His rest is not here. He is not a citizen of earth. Here he has no abiding city. He journeys to a shrine unseen by mortal eye, where his fathers have arrived. This life journey is his one incessant occupation. He came into the world that he might march through it in haste. He is always a pilgrim, in the fullest and truest sense.
Nothing can be more pleasing to a thoughtful Christian than marking the footsteps of the flock, and tracing the track they have left in the blood sprinkled way. Thus the geography of Christian life becomes an interesting study.
To enter the small gate, to sit in the arbour on the hillside, to lie in the chamber of peace in the House Beautiful, to stand on the Delectable Mountains, or walk among the spice beds of the land Beulah, yields far sweeter pleasure than fairy dreams, or tales coloured by fancy, whispered by the lips of music.
There are many fair and enchanting spots in the highway of salvation—spots which angels have visited, and which the saints have longed to behold again and again. But some other parts of the way are not so inviting; we do not love to enter the Valley of the Shadow of Death, nor to approach the mountains of the leopards, nor the lions’ dens, yet we must pass by all of them.
It is a precious mercy that Jesus, the heavenly Friend, is willing and able to accompany us in all our journeyings, and is the consolation of our souls in periods of blackest woe. After surveying the Valley of Baca, noticing the toilsome effort of the pilgrims in digging wells there, and remarking the heavenly supply with which the pools are filled, we shall consider the grace of our Lord Jesus as exhibited to his people in their sorrowful passage through this Vale of Tears.
I. The Valley of Baca.
The best description given of the Valley of Baca seems to be, that it was a defilement through which a portion of the tribes had to pass on their journey to the city of their solemnities. It was a place noted for its dryness, and therefore pits were dug therein for the purpose of holding rainwater for the thirsty wayfarers as they passed through it. But, probably, the Psalmist looked not so much at the place as at its name, which signifies ‘Valley of Sorrow, or Tears.’ The Septuagint translates it, ‘Valley of Lamentation,’ and the Latin Vulgate, ‘Vale of Tears.’ We may therefore read the verse this way:—‘Who passing through the vale of Tears make it a well,’ Of this valley we may observe,
1. First, It is much frequented.
The way to Zion lies through its glooms. Many of God's chosen ones are carried from the breast to glory, and thus escape this dreary place, but all the rest of God's children must pass through it. Frequent are their sojourning in this ‘house of mourning.’ Not once nor twice, but many times must they tread this valley. As numerous as their days are the causes of their griefs. The assaults of disease, the disappointments of business, the losses of adversity, and the havocs of death, combining with a thousand other ills, furnish enough material for the many tribulations through which we inherit the kingdom. All men have their times of sadness, but some seem to be always in the deep waters. Their lives, like Ezekiel's scroll, seem written on both sides with lamentations. They can just dimly remember happier days, but those are long past. They have for some time been the children of grief. They seldom eat a crust of bread unmoistened by a tear. Sorrow's wormwood is their daily salad. Perhaps some sudden calamity has snatched away the gourd which covered their head, and, Jonah‑like, they think they do well to be angry even unto death. A haze, dark and heavy, hangs like a pall before their eyes, and clothes life's scenery with sadness and gloom. Some are associated with ungodly partners, by whose unkindness their days are made bitter, and their lives a burden. There are various causes of grief. The chains of sadness differ in their size and material. Bound in affliction and iron, are you saying, ‘He has made my chain heavy?’ Oh, child of grief, remember the vale of tears is frequented often; you are not alone in your distress. Sorrow has a large family. Do not say, I am the man that has seen affliction, for there are others in the furnace with you. Remember, moreover, the King of kings once went through this valley, and here he obtained his name, ‘the Man of sorrows,’ for it was while passing through it he became ‘acquainted with grief.’
But, blessed be God, all his people are not thus clad in sackcloth and filled with bitterness. Some of them can sing for joy of heart, and, like the lark, rise to heaven's gates, carolling notes of praise. Yet, it is observed, there is not one who has not had his valley of Baca. He that has sparkling eyes and a cheerful countenance was once walking in its dark and dreary paths. He who danced before the ark had cried out of the depths unto the Lord. He whom you heard in prayer, with free heart blessing his Maker, was lately in his bedroom, crying out with Job, ‘Oh, that my grief were fully weighed!’ and with Jeremiah, ‘He has filled me with bitterness, He has made me drink wormwood.’
Oh, mourner, do not say that you are a target for all the arrows of the Almighty; do not take to yourself the preeminence of woe; for your fellows have trodden the valley too, and on them are the scars of the thorns and briars of the dreary pathway.
2. Secondly, this valley is exceedingly unpleasant to flesh and blood.
We love to ascend the mountains of myrrh and hills of frankincense, rather than to descend into this dismal region. For tribulation is not joyous, but grievous. Disguise sorrow as we may, it is still sorrow. No pilgrim ever wished to enter here for its own sake, though there have been many who have rejoiced in the midst of its darkest and most gloomy paths. Now, let us briefly consider why this valley is so unpleasant to heaven-bound travellers. It is so because we can find no rivers of water in it. Earthly joys are continually failing us; and created cisterns, one after another, are dried up. A hot, dry wind steals away every drop of comfort, and, hungry and thirsty, our soul faints in us. No fruit of sweetness grows here. It answers well the description of Watts:—
‘It yields us no supply,
No cheering fruits, no wholesome trees,
Nor streams of living joy.’
Many rich mercies are received here by pilgrims, but these are not the fruits of the place itself, but the gifts of heaven. It is, moreover, disagreeable travelling in this valley, because the way is rough and rugged. In some parts of the Christian journey we are led into green pastures beside the still waters; but this valley is thorny, stony, and flinty, and in every way uncomfortable. True, there are many labourers, called promises, always at work breaking the stones, and helping passengers over its more difficult places; but notwithstanding this aid, journeying through it is very rough work for all, but especially for those pilgrims who are weak, and ready to halt. It is also frequently very dark. The vale of tears is very low, and descends far beneath the ordinary level; some parts of it, indeed, are tunnelled through rocks of anguish. A frequent cause of its darkness is that on either side of the valley there are high mountains, called the mountains of sin. These rise so high that they obscure the light of the sun. Behind these Andes of guilt God hides his face, and we are troubled. Then how densely dark the pathway becomes! Indeed, this is the very worst thing that can he mentioned of this valley: for, if it were not so dark, pilgrims would not so much dread passing through it.
The soul of the traveller is also often discouraged on account of the length of the way. Through the darkness of the place it seems as though it had no termination, for, although it is known that the dark river of death flows across its extremity, but, in the night season, the celestial city on the other side cannot be seen. This is the Egyptian darkness which may be felt, and, like solid piles of ebony, at such times it appears to have an unyielding hardness in it. Besides, this valley is greatly haunted. Evil spirits are very common in it. When a man is in the valley of Baca, Satan will soon be at him with his fiery darts, cursed insinuations, and blasphemous suggestions. Like the bandit, he waylays us in the roughest and darkest part of our way. This greatly deepens the horror of the place.
3. Thirdly, this valley is very healthful.
In all the King's dominions, except the royal pavilion in glory, there is no spot more conducive to the soul's health than this. The air from the sea of affliction is extremely beneficial to invalid Christians. Continued prosperity, like a warm atmosphere, has a tendency to relax the muscle and soften the bones; but the cold winds of trouble make us sturdy, hardy, and well braced in every part. Unbroken success often leads to an undervaluing of mercies and forgetfulness of the giver; but the withdrawal of the sunshine leads us to look for the sun.
4. Fourthly, it is a very safe place.
We are not so likely to stumble in rough ways as in smooth and slippery places. Better to walk on rugged rocks than on slippery ice. If we lose our balance, it is in the harbour of ease, not in the valley of Baca. Few Christians backslide while under the rod; it is usually when on the lap of plenty that believers sin.
5. Fifthly, it is, therefore, a profitable place.
Stars may be seen from the bottom of a deep well when they cannot be discerned from the top of a mountain: likewise many things learned in adversity which the prosperous man does not dream of. We need affliction, as the trees need winter, that we may collect sap and nourishment for future blossoms and fruit. Sorrow is as necessary for the soul as medicine is to the body:—
‘The path of sorrow, and that path alone,
Leads to the land where sorrow is unknown.’
The benefits to
be derived in the vale of tears are greater than its horrors, and far outnumber
its disadvantages. There once was a fiction of a golden cup at the foot of the
rainbow: it would not have been fiction had they put the treasure in the dark cloud.
In this valley of Baca there are mines of gold and all kinds of precious
things; and sometimes, even in the thick darkness, one may perceive the
diamonds glitter. Many, many pilgrims have been made rich here in all the
purposes of bliss, and here also others have had their heavenly wealth most marvellously
But we proceed to observe—
II. The Toilsome Effort spoken of in the words at the head of the chapter—‘They make it a spring.’
When Eastern shepherds travel, if they find no water, they dig a well, and thus obtain a plentiful supply of water for themselves and for their cattle. Isaac did so, and so did the rulers for the people in the wilderness. When we are thirsty and there is no water to be found in the pools, we must dig deep for it. Calvin translates it—‘They, travelling through the valley of weeping, will dig a well.’ This teaches us that—
1. Comfort may be obtained even in the deepest trouble.
We often look for it and fancy there is none. Like Hagar, the child of our hope is given up, and we lay down to die; but why should we, when there is water to be had, if we will but seek for it? Let no man say, ‘My case is hopeless;’ let no one say, ‘I am in the valley, and can never know joy again.’ There is hope. There is the water of life to cheer our fainting souls. It certainly is not possible for us to be in a position where Omnipotence cannot assist us. God has servants everywhere, and where we think he has none his word can create a multitude. There are ‘treasures hidden in the sand,’ (Deut. 33:19) and the Lord's chosen shall eat of it. When the clouds hide the mountains they are as real as in the sunshine; so the promise and the providence of God are unchanged by the obscurity of our faith, or the difficulties of our position. There is hope, and hope at hand, therefore let us be of good cheer.
2. It teaches that comfort must be obtained by exertion.
Digging a well is hard labour: but it is better to dig for water than to die of thirst. Much of the misery Christians feel arises from inaction. Cold numbs the hand if they are not exercised. We are bound to use every scriptural means to obtain the good we need. The sanctuary, the meeting for prayer, the Bible, the company of the saints, private prayer and meditation—these revive the soul. We must dig the wells. If there is rocky granite we must bore through it; we must not be interrupted in our perseverance by the labour of our duties, but continue to still dig: and what a mercy! Even if the well only has a very small bore the water will still flow.
8. It teaches us that the comfort obtained by one is often of use to another; just as wells opened by former travellers would suffice for the company which came after.
When we read works full of consolation, like Jonathan's rod, dropping with honey, let us remember that our brother has been here before us, and dug this well. ‘Songs in the Night,’ could only have been written by that nightingale in the thorns, Susanna Harrison. Many a ‘Night of Weeping,’ ‘Midnight Harmonies,’ an ‘Eternal Day,’ ‘A Crook in the Lot,’ a ‘Comfort for Mourners,’ has been a well dug by a pilgrim for himself, but has proved just as useful to others. We especially notice this in the Psalms, which console us, although they were mournful verses to David. Travellers have been delighted to see the footprints of man on a barren shore, and we love to see the signposts of the pilgrimage while passing through the vale of tears. Yes, the refuse and débris of the receding camp often furnish food for the stragglers coming behind. We may notice—
III. The Heavenly Supply.
The pilgrims dig the well, but, strange enough, it fills from the top instead of the bottom. We use the means, but the blessing does not lie in the means, but in the God of the means. We dig the well, but heaven fills it with rain. ‘The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but deliverance is of the Lord’ (Prov. 21:31). The means are divinely connected with the end, but they do not produce the blessing. ‘The rain also covers it with pools,’ so that ordinances and duties are reservoirs rather than fountains, containing comfort, but not creating it. All the ordinances are in vain without the divine blessing; as clouds without rain, and pools without water, they yield us no supplies. When heaven smiles and pours down its showers of grace, then they are precious things; but without the celestial rain we might as well expect water from the arid waste, as a real blessing in the use of them. ‘All my springs are in you,’ is the believer’s daily confession to his Lord—a confession which must always be on his lips until death.
We now turn to our legitimate subject, from which the beauty of the text has for a while allured us, and we hasten to answer the question, How does Jesus behave himself toward his people in the hour of their distresses? Does he leave them when their friends are taken from them? Does he desert them in the hour of their poverty? Is he ashamed of them when sackcloth is on their loins, and ashes upon their heads? Do the pains of sickness terrify him from the bed? Can famine and nakedness separate his brethren from his love? Is he the same yesterday, today, and forever? Our answer shall be one dictated by the experience of the saints, and confirmed in the life of the Christian reader. The Lord Jesus is no fair weather friend, but one who loves at all times---a brother born for adversity. This he proves to his beloved, not by mere words of promise, but by actual deeds of affection. As our sufferings abound, so he makes our consolations to abound. This he does by various choice acts of love.
1. He affords the tried saint clearer manifestations of himself than usual.
When he draws the curtain around the believer on the bed of sickness, he usually withdraws the curtain which he conceals himself. He approaches nearer to the soul in its tribulation, even as the sun is said to be nearer to the earth in the time of winter. He sheds a clear light on his promise when he robes his providence in darkness; and if both are alike clouded, he reveals himself the more manifestly. Affliction has often proved to be a presence‑chamber, in which the King of Heaven gives audience to his unworthy subjects. As Isaac met his bride in the fields at eventide, so do true souls frequently find their joy and consolation in the loneliness of solitude, and at the sunset of their earthly pleasures. He who would see the stars sparkling with tenfold lustre must dwell in the cold regions of snow; and he who would know the full beauties of Jesus, the bright and morning star, must see him amid the frosts of trouble and adversity. Affliction is often the hand of God, which he places before our face to enable us, like Moses, to see the train of his glory as he passes by. The saint has had many a pleasant view of God's lovingkindness from the top of the hills of mercy; but tribulation is very frequently the Lord's Pisgah, from which he gives them a view of the land in all its length and breadth.
Mr. Renwick, the last of the Scottish martyrs, speaking of his sufferings for conscience' sake, says:
‘Enemies think themselves satisfied that we are put to wander in mosses, and upon mountains; but even amidst the storms of these last two nights, I cannot express what sweet times I have had, when I had no covering but the dark curtains of night. Yea, in the silent watch, my mind was led out to admire the deep and inexpressible ocean of joy wherein the whole family of heaven swim. Each star led me to wonder what He must be who is the star of Jacob, of whom all stars borrow their shining.’
This one testimony is the type of many; it is an exhibition of the great rule of the kingdom—‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.’
Choice discoveries of the wondrous love and grace of Jesus are most tenderly granted to believers in the times of grief. Then it is that he lifts them up from his feet, where, like Mary, it is their delight to sit, and exalts them to the position of the favoured John, pressing them to his breast and bidding them lean on his bosom. Then it is that he fills the cup of salvation with the old wine of the kingdom, and puts it to the mouth of the Christian, that he may in some measure forget the flavour of wormwood and grating of gravel‑stones which the dose of bitterness has placed upon his palate and between his teeth. If Christ is more excellent at one time than another it certainly is in ‘the cloudy and dark day.’ We can never see the true colour of Christ's love, so well, as in the night of weeping. Christ in the dungeon, Christ on the bed of sickness, Christ in poverty, is Christ indeed to a sanctified man. No vision of Christ Jesus is so truly a revelation as that which is seen in the Patmos of suffering. As in time of war the city doubles its guards, so does Jesus multiply the displays of his affection when his chosen are besieged by trials. When Habakkuk's body trembled, and his lips quivered, and rottenness entered into his bones, when all his earthly hopes were blasted, and his comforts removed, he had such an overcoming sense of the presence of God that he exclaimed in the midst of all his sorrows, ‘Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.’ Among the family of God none are so well versed in the knowledge of Christ's love as those who have been a long time in the chamber of affliction. What marvellous things have these seen, and what secrets have they heard! They, have kissed the lips which others have only heard at a distance; they have pressed their heads on the breast which others have only seen with their eyes; and they have been embraced in the arms into which others have but desired to climb. Give us the Christ of affliction, for he is Christ indeed.
2. As under sanctified affliction the manifestations of Christ are more clear, so are his visitations more frequent.
If he pay us a daily visit when we are in our high estate, he will be with us hourly when we are cast down from our high places. As the sick child has the most of the mother's eye, so does the afflicted believer receive the most of his Saviour's attention, for like a mother that comforts her children, even so does the Lord comfort his people. Pious Brooks writes, ‘Oh, the love tokens, the love letters, the bracelets, the jewels that the saints are able to produce since they have been in the furnace of affliction!’ Of these they only had one in a season before, but now that their troubles have driven them nearer to their Saviour, they have enough to store in their cabinet. Now they can truly say, ‘How precious also are your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them!’ (Ps. 139:17). Before, mercies came so constantly that memory could not compute their number; but now they appear to come in wave after wave, without a moment's cessation. Happy is the man who finds the furnace as hot with love as with affliction. Let the tried believer look for increased privileges, and his faithful Lord will not deceive his expectations. He who rides upon the storm when it is tossing the ocean, will not be absent when it is beating about his saints. ‘The Lord of hosts is with us,’ is not the song of them that make merry in the dance, but of those who are struggling in battle. ‘David, doubtless, had worse devils than we, for without great tribulations he could not have had so great and glorious revelations. David made psalms; we also will make psalms, and sing, as well as we can, to the honour of our Lord God, and to spite and mock the devil.’ [Luther, in his Table-talk]. Surely, it would be long before our ‘songs of deliverance’ would end, if we were mindful of the manifold tokens for good which our glorious Lord grants us in the hour of sadness. How he wakens us morning by morning with the turtle voice of love; and how he lulls us to our evening repose with notes of kind compassion! Each hour brings favours on its wings. He is now become an abiding companion, that while we ‘who stay by the supplies; will share alike’ in the spoil (1 Sam. 30:24). Oh, sweet trouble, which brings Jesus nearer to us! Affliction is the black chariot of Christ, in which he rides to his children. Welcome, shades that herald or accompany our Lord!
3. In trying times the compassion and sympathy of Jesus become more delightfully the subject of faith and experience.
He ever feels the woes of all the members of his mystical body; in all their afflictions he is afflicted, for he is touched with a feeling of our infirmities. This golden truth becomes most precious to the soul, when, in the midst of losses and crosses, by the Holy Spirit's influence, the power of it is felt in the soul. A confident belief in the fact that Jesus is not an unconcerned spectator of our tribulation, and a confident assurance that he is in the furnace with us, will furnish a downy pillow for our aching head. When the hours limp slowly along, how sweet to reflect that he has felt the weariness of time when sorrows multiplied! When the spirit is wounded by reproach and slander, how comforting to remember that he also once said, ‘Reproach has broken my heart!’ And, above all, how abundantly full of consolation is the thought that now, even now, he feels for us, and is a living head, sympathising in every pang of his wounded body. The certainty that Jesus knows and feels all that we endure, is one of the delicacies with which afflicted souls are comforted. More especially is this a cheering thought when our good is spoken of as evil, our motives misrepresented, and our zeal condemned. Then, in absence of all other balms, this acts as a sovereign remedy for decay of spirit. Give us Christ with us, and we can afford to smile in the face of our foes.
‘As to appreciation and sympathy, we do not depend for these on fellow‑worms. We can be content to be unappreciated here, so long as Christ understands us, and has a fellow‑feeling for us. It is for him we labour. One of his smiles outweighs all other commendation. To him we look for our reward; and oh! is it not enough that he has promised it at his coming? It will not be long to wait. Do our hearts crave human fellowship and sympathy? We surely have it in our great High Priest. Oh, how often should we faint but for the humanity of our divine Redeemer! He is bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh; yet he has an almighty arm for our deliverance—human to feel, divine to aid; faithful over all our failures and imperfections. What need we more?’ [Vide Shady Side, by a Pastor’s Wife].
We may fancy we want some other encouragement, but if we know the value of the sympathy of Christ we shall soon find it all sufficient. We shall think Christ alone to be enough to make a list of friends. The orator spoke on so long as Plato listened, thinking one wise man enough audience for him; let us labour on, and hope on, if Jesus is our only helper. Let us, in all the times of our tribulation and affliction, content ourselves with one Comforter, if all others fail us. Job had three miserable comforters; it is far better to have one who is fall of pity and able to console. And who can do this so truly as our own most loving Lord Jesus? Moreover, it is not only true that he can do it, but he actually does do it, and that in no small degree, by making apparent the motions of his own heart. He bids us to see his breast, as it heaves in unison with ours, and he invites us to read his heart, to see if the same lines of suffering are not written there.
‘I feel at my heart all your sighs and your groans,
For you are most near me, my flesh and my bones;
In all your distresses your Head feels the pain,
They all are most needful, not one is in vain."
Thus does he gently alleviate the floods of our swelling grief.
4. The Lord Jesus is graciously pleased in many cases to give his afflicted saints an unusual insight into the deep things of his word, and an unusual delight in meditation on them.
Our losses frequently act toward us as if they had cleared our eyes; at any rate, sickness and sorrow have often been the fingers of Jesus, with which he applied the salve of illuminating grace. Either the understanding is more than ordinarily enlarged, or else the promises are more simply opened up and explained by the Holy Spirit. Who has not observed the supernatural wisdom of the long afflicted saint? Who has not known the fact that the school of sanctified sorrow is that in which are to be found the ripest scholars?
We learn more true divinity by our trials than by our books. The great Reformer said, ‘Prayer is the best book in my library.’ He might have added affliction as the next. Sickness is the best Doctor of Divinity in all the world; and trial is the finest exposition of Scripture. This is so inestimable a mark of the love of our blessed Lord that we might almost desire trouble for the sake of it. This proves him to be wise in his hardest dealings towards us, and therefore supremely kind; for is it not kindness which puts us to a little trouble for the sake of an immense advantage, and does it, as it were, take our money out of our coffers at home that it may return again with mighty interest? Jesus is a friend indeed!
5. If the presence of Jesus is not felt and realised, he nevertheless sustains the soul by a secret and unseen energy which he imparts to the spirit.
Jesus is not always absent when he is unseen; but, on the contrary, he is frequently near to us when we have no assurance of his presence. Many times the man who pours oil on the flame of our comfort to prevent the quenching of the enemy, is behind the wall, where we cannot perceive him [See Parable in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress]. The Lord has a heart which is ever full of affection towards his elect, and when he seems to leave them he is still sustaining them. Patience under withdrawals of his conscious presence is a sure sign of his real, though secret presence, in the soul. A blind man is really nourished by the food he eats, even though he cannot see it; so, when by the blindness of our spiritual vision, we are unable to discern the Saviour, yet his grace sustains our strength and keeps us alive in famine. The intense desire after Jesus, the struggling of the soul with doubts and fears, and the inward panting of the whole being after the living God, prove beyond a doubt that Jesus is at work in the soul, though he may be concealed from the eye of faith. How should it, therefore, be a matter of wonder that secretly he should be able to afford support to the sinking saint, even at seasons when his absence is bemoaned with lamentations and tears?
‘The real gracious influences and effects of his favour may be continued, upholding, strengthening, and carrying on the soul still to obey and fear God, whilst he yet conceals his favour; for when Christ complained, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (when as great an eclipse in regard of the light of God's countenance was upon his spirit, as was upon the earth in regard to the sun) yet he never more obeyed God, was never more strongly supported than at that time, for then he was obeying to the death.’ [Goodwin’s Child of Light].
God's favour most assuredly rests on his children's hearts and strengthens their spirits, when the light and comfort of it are shut out from their perceptions. Christ puts his children upon his lap, and heals their wounds when, by reason of their fainting condition, they do not feel his hand, and do not see his smile. It is said, ‘All that glitters is not gold;’ certainly, we may alter the proverb, for it is true spiritually that all gold does not glitter; but this dimness does not affect its intrinsic worth and value.
The old theologians used to say, ‘Grace may be in the heart in esse et operari, when not in cognosci; it may have a being and a working there when not in thy apprehension.’ Let us praise our bountiful Lord for unseen favours, and let us love our Lord Jesus for his mercies imparted in silence, unobserved.
6. After long seasons of depression Jesus becomes sweetly the consolation of Israel by removing our load in a manner at once singularly blessed and marvellously effective.
It may be that the nature or design of the trial prevents us from enjoying any comfortable sense of our Lord's love during the time of its endurance; in such cases the grace of our Lord Jesus reveals itself in the hour of our escape. If we do not see our Lord in the prison, we shall meet him on the threshold in that day which shall see him break the gates of brass and cut the bars of iron apart. Marvellous are his works in the day wherein he brings us out of the house of bondage. Halyburton, after escape from a time of gloom and desertion, thus broke silence to a friend—
‘Oh, what a terrible conflict had I yesterday! but now I can say “I have fought the good fight; I have kept the faith.” Now he has filled my mouth with a new song, “Jehovah Jireh—in the mount of the Lord.” Praise, praise is comely to the upright. Shortly I shall get a better sight of God than ever I have had, and be more meet to praise him than ever. Oh, the thoughts of an incarnate God are sweet and ravishing! And oh, how do I wonder at myself that I do not love him more—that I do not admire him more. Oh, that I could honour him! What a wonder that I enjoy such composure under all my bodily troubles! Oh, what a mercy that I have the use of my reason till I have declared his goodness to me!’
Thus it seems that the sun is all the more brighter for having been awhile hidden from us. And here the
reader must pardon the writer if he introduces a personal narrative, which is to him a most memorable proof of the lovingkindness of the Lord. Such an opportunity of recording my Lord's goodness may never occur again to me; and therefore now, while my soul is warm with gratitude for so recent a deliverance, let me lay aside the language of an author, and speak for myself, as I would tell the story to my friends in conversation. It may be egotism to weave one's own sorrows into the warp and woof [foundation] of this meditation; but if the heart prompts the act, and the motions of the Holy Spirit are not contrary to it, then I think I may venture for this one time, to raise an Ebenezer in public, and rehearse the praise of Jesus as I set it up. Egotism is not so frightful a thing as ungrateful silence; certainly it is not more contemptible than fake humility. Right or wrong, my story follows.
On a night, which time will never erase from my memory, large numbers of my congregation were scattered, many of them wounded and some killed, by the malicious act of wicked men. Strong amid danger, I battled the storm, nor did my spirit yield to the overwhelming pressure while my courage could reassure the wavering or confirm the bold. But when, like a whirlwind, the destruction had passed, when the whole of its devastation was visible to my eye, who can conceive the anguish of my spirit? I refused to be comforted, tears were my substance by day, and dreams my terror by night. I felt as I had never felt before. ‘My thoughts were all a case of knives,’ cutting my heart in pieces, until a kind of stupor of grief ministered a mournful medicine to me. I could have truly said, ‘I am not mad, but surely I have had enough to madden me, if I should indulge in meditation on it.’ I sought and found a solitude which seemed congenial to me. I could tell my griefs to the flowers, and the dews could weep with me. Here my mind lay, like a wreck upon the sand, incapable of its usual motion. I was in a strange land, and a stranger in it. My Bible, once my daily food, was but a hand to lift the floodgates of my woe. Prayer yielded no balm to me; in fact, my soul was like an infant's soul, and I could not rise to the dignity of supplication. ‘Broken in pieces and all separated from each other,’ my thoughts, which had been to me like a cup of delights, were like pieces of broken glass, the piercing and cutting miseries of my pilgrimage:—
‘The tumult of my thoughts
Does but enlarge my woe;
My spirit languishes, my heart
Is desolate and low.
With every morning light
My sorrow new begins:
Look on my anguish and my pain,
And pardon all my sins.’
Then came ‘the slander of many’—barefaced fabrications, libellous slanders, and barbarous accusations. These alone might have scooped out the last drop of consolation from my cup of happiness, but the worst had come to the worst, and the utmost malice of the enemy could do no more. Lower they cannot sink who are already in the lowest depths. Misery itself is the guardian of the miserable. All things combined to keep me for a season in the darkness where neither sun nor moon appeared. I had hoped for a gradual return to peaceful consciousness, and patiently did I wait for the dawning light. But it did not come as I had desired, for He who does for us exceeding abundantly above what we can ask or think sent me a happier answer to my requests. I had struggled to think of the immeasurable love of Jehovah, as displayed in the sacrifice of Calvary; I had endeavoured to muse upon the glorious character of the exalted Jesus; but I found it impossible to collect my thoughts in the quiver of meditation, or, indeed, to place them anywhere but with their points in my wounded spirit, or else at my feet, trodden down in an almost childish thoughtlessness. All of a sudden, like a flash of lightning from the sky, my soul returned to me. The burning lava of my brain cooled in an instant. The throbbings of my temple were still; the cool wind of comfort fanned my cheek, which had been scorched in the furnace. I was free, the iron fetter was broken in pieces, my prison door was open, I leaped for joy of heart. On wings of a dove my spirit mounted to the stars—yes, beyond them. Where did it wing its flight? and where did it sing its song of gratitude? It was at the feet of Jesus, whose name had charmed its fears, and placed an end to its mourning. The name—the precious name of Jesus, was like Ithuriel's spear, bringing back my soul to its own right and happy state. I was a man again, and what is more, a believer. The garden in which I stood became an Eden to me, and the spot was then most solemnly consecrated in my most grateful memory. Happy hour. Thrice blessed Lord, who thus in an instant delivered me from the rock of my despair, and slew the vulture of my grief! Before I told others of the glad news of my recovery, my heart was melodious with song, and my tongue endeavoured slowly to express the music. Then did I give to my Well‑Beloved a song touching my Well‑Beloved; and oh! with what rapture did my soul flash forth its praises! but all—all were to the honour of Him, the first and the last, the Brother born for adversity, the Deliverer of the captive, the Breaker of my fetters, the Restorer of my soul. Then did I cast my burden upon the Lord; I left my ashes and did array myself in the garments of praise, while He anointed me with fresh oil. I could have torn apart the very firmament to get at Him, to cast myself at his feet, and lie there bathed in the tears of joy and love. Never since the day of my conversion had I known so much of his infinite excellence, never had my spirit leaped with such unutterable delight. Scorn, tumult, and woe seemed less than nothing for his sake. I girded up my loins to run before his chariot, and shout forth his glory, for my soul was absorbed in the one idea of his glorious exaltation and divine compassion.
After I made a declaration, of the exceeding grace of God towards me, to my dearest kindred and friends, I attempted again to preach. The task which I had dreaded to perform was another means of comfort, and I can truly declare that the words of that morning were as much the utterance of my inner man as if I had been standing before the bar of God. The text selected ran like this—‘Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Phil. 2:9-11). May I trouble the reader with some of the utterances of the morning, for they were the unveilings of my own experience.
When the mind is intensely set upon one object, however much it may by various calamities be tossed to and fro, it invariably returns to the place which it had chosen to be its dwelling place. You have noticed it in the case of David. When the battle had been won by his warriors, they returned flushed with victory. Doubtless, David's mind had suffered much trouble in the meantime; he had dreaded alike the
effects of victory and of defeat; but have you not noticed how his thoughts in one moment returned to the dearest object of his affections? ‘Is the young man Absalom safe?’ he said, as if it did not matter what else had occurred, if only his beloved son was secure! So, beloved, is it with the Christian. In the midst of calamities, whether they are the wreck of nations, the crash of empires, the heaving of revolutions or the scourge of war, the great question which he asks himself, and asks of others too, is this—‘Is Christ's kingdom safe?’ In his own personal afflictions his chief anxiety is—Will God be glorified, and will his honour be increased by it? If it is so, he says, although I am but as smoking flax, yet if the sun is not dimmed I will rejoice; and though I am a bruised reed, if the pillars of the temple are unbroken, what does it matter that my reed is bruised? He finds it sufficient consolation, in the midst of all the breaking in pieces which he endures, to think that Christ's throne stands fast and firm, and that though the earth has rocked beneath his feet, yet Christ stands on a rock which never can be moved. Some of these feelings, I think have crossed our minds. Amidst much tumult and various rushing to and fro of troublesome thoughts, our souls have returned to the dearest object of our desires, and we have found it no small consolation, after all, to say, ‘It does not matter what shall become of us; God has highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name; that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow.’
Thus the thought of the love of Jesus in his delivering grace is most indelibly impressed upon my memory; and the fact that this experience is to me the most memorable crisis of my life, must be my apology for narrating it—an apology which I trust the indulgent reader will accept.
7. Although it may be thought that we have reached the legitimate boundary of our subject, we cannot refrain from adding, that Jesus renders himself particularly precious by the gracious manner in which, by bestowing an amazing increase of joy, he entirely obliterates every scar which the sword of adversity may have left in our flesh.
As the joy that a child is born into the world is said to destroy the remembrance of the previous travail of the mother, so the glorious manifestations of the Lord do wipe out all the bitter memories of the trials of the past. After the showers have fallen from the dark and lowering skies, how pleasant is the breath of
nature, how delightfully the sun peers through the thick trees, transforming all the raindrops into sparkling gems; and even so, after a shower of troubles, it is marvellous to feel the divine refreshings of the Lord of hosts quickly transforming every tear into a jewel of delight, and satisfying the soul with balmy peace. The soul's calm is deep and profound when the tempest has fully spent itself, for the same Jesus who in the storm said, ‘It is I,’ will comfort his people with royal delicacies when the winds have been hushed to sleep. At the heels of our sorrows we find our joys. Great ebbs are succeeded by great floods, and sharp winters are followed by bright summers. This is the sweet fruit of Christ's love—he will not have his brethren remember their sorrows with regret; he so works in them and towards them that their light affliction is forgotten in happy contemplation of his eternal weight of glory. Happy is that unhappiness which brings with it such surpassing privileges, and more than excellent is the grace which makes it so. We need a poet to sing the sweet uses of adversity. An ancient writer, whose words we are about to quote, has unconsciously produced a sonnet in prose upon this subject:—
‘Stars shine brightest in the darkest night; torches are better for the beating; grapes come not to the proof till they come to the press; spices smell sweetest when pounded; young trees root the faster for shaking; vines are the better for bleeding; gold looks the brighter for scouring; glow‑worms glisten best in the dark; juniper smells sweetest in the fire; pomander becomes most fragrant from chafing, the palm tree proves the better for pressing; camsomile the more you tread it the more you spread it: such is the condition of all God's children, they are most triumphant when they are most tempted; most glorious when most afflicted; most in the favour of God when least in man’s esteem. As their conflicts, so their conquests; as their tribulations, so their triumphs. True salamanders, they live best in the furnace of persecution; so that heavy afflictions are the best benefactors to heavenly affections. Where afflictions hang heaviest, corruptions, hang loosest; and grace that is hid in nature, as sweet water in rose leaves, is most fragrant when the fire of affliction is put under to distil it out.’ [Samuel Clerk, preface to Martyrology]
Let each reader inquire whether this is in harmony with his experience, and if it be so, let him testify to his tried brethren that he has tasted and handled the goodness of the Lord Jesus, and has found him full of grace to help, and power to comfort. Open your mouth as wide in praise as you did in prayer, and let your gratitude be as lasting as his love.
But if the reader cannot bear witness to the faithfulness of the Lord in the day of adversity, let him tremble. If his religion has forsaken him in his distress, let him at once doubt its character. That is not from heaven which cannot endure the fire. If the promises afford you no comfort in your trials, if your faith utterly fails, and you find your profession tottering around ears, look carefully at yourself that you are not deceived. We dare not say that there is no grace in the man who finds no comfort in the Lord in the day of evil, but we do say, with much earnestness, there is very grave cause for suspicion. The following sentences from the pen of William Gurnall deserve much pondering, they will raise a vital question in the mind of those who have never felt the sweetness of the promises in the hour of need:—
‘Promises are like the clothes we wear. If there be heat in the body to warm them, they warm us, but if there be none, they give none. So where there is living faith, the promise will afford warm comfort; but on a dead, unbelieving heart, it lies cold and ineffectual: it has no more effect than pouring a cordial down the throat of a corpse. Again, the promises do not throw out comfort as fire throws out heat; for then we should only need to go to them in order to be warmed: their heat is like the fire in the flint, which must be struck out by force, and this force can only be applied by faith.’ [Christian Armour]
There is another explanation of the fact that a professor in trial sometimes finds no comfort in the promises; and as it is a little more lenient, we add it here, and desire all such persons to judge for themselves. It may be that you have neglected communion, and therefore your troubles weigh heavily. When a bucket is let down into a deep well, and is under the water, it is easily wound up, and seems to be light, but when once it is drawn up out of the water its weight becomes excessive: it is the same with our sorrows—as long as we keep them submerged in God and fellowship they are light enough; but once consider them apart from the Lord, and they become a grievous and intolerable burden. Faith will have to tug in earnest to lift our adversities when we stand alone without our Lord; the lack of communion will rob the promises of their comfort, and load our griefs with weights of iron.
It seems, then, that you have one of two faults to find with yourself—either you are dead, and so unable to feel the heat and comfort of the Lord's presence; or else you have been inactive, not improving the means whereby the fellowship of the Master may be realised. Search your heart and know the reason. ‘Are the consolations of God too small for you?’ (Job 15:11). Look to yourself, for it may be that your soul is in an evil plight, and if so, be sure to give good heed to it. Go to the Lord at once, and ask for a fresh supply of life and grace. Do not seek to mimic the joy of believers, but strive for the reality of it. Do not rely on your own power. Trim your lamp with heavenly oil. If the fire of the Roman vestals [in Roman mythology, Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, was worshiped as a household deity. The most important shrine to Vesta was her round temple in the Forum at Rome. The continuous flame in the shrine was said to have been brought by Aeneas, the city's legendary founder. Priests who tended the sacred fire were called “vestals”] were ever extinguished, they dare not light it except at the sun; be sure that you do not kindle a flame in your heart with strange fire. Get renewal where you first got conversion, but be sure to get it, and at once. May the Holy Spirit help you.
TO THE UNCONVERTED READER
Poor sinner, how great a difference there is between you and the believer! And how apparent is this difference when in trouble! You have trials, but you have no God to flee to; your afflictions are frequently of the sharpest kind, but you have no promises to blunt their edge; you are in the furnace, but you are without that divine companion who can prevent the fire from hurting you. To the child of God adversity brings many blessings—to you it is empty handed; to him there arises light in the darkness—to you there is the darkness but no appearing of the light; you have all its miseries, but none of its benefits. How dreary must your heart feel when lover and friend are separated far from you, when your hopes are withered, and your joys are removed! You have no Christ to cheer you; he is not the compensation of
your grief; he is not Jehovah Jireh to you. You have no Almighty arms beneath you, no Eternal God to be your refuge, no Anointed One to be your shield. You must bear your sorrows alone, or, if any other person attempts to help you, their strength is incompetent for the task.
Oh, wretched man! Forever enduring the thorn, but never reaching the throne; in the floods, but not washed; burning in the fire, but not refined; pounded in the mortar, but not cleansed of foolishness; suffering, but unsanctified. What misery to have no foundation in the day of the tempest, no covering from the wind, no shelter from the storm! The saint can bear a world of trouble when the strength of Israel braces him with omnipotence; but you, without the support of the Most High, are crushed before the moth, and overwhelmed when evil gets hold of you. Your present trials are too heavy for you; what will you do in the swellings of the Jordan? In the day when the drops shall have become a torrent, and the small rain of tribulation has given place to the waterspouts of vengeance, how will you endure the unutterable wrath of the Lamb?
Take this to your heart, and may the Lord enable you to cast the burden of your sin upon the crucified Saviour; then you will have boldness to cast your griefs there also.
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