“Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God.” -HEBREWS 3. 12.
THE contrast between the third and fourth chapters of this epistle is very marked. The former is like a drear November day, when all the landscape is drenched by sweeping rain, and the rotting leaves fall in showers to find a grave upon the damp and muddy soil. The latter is like a still clear day in midsummer, when nature revels in reposeful bliss beneath the unstinted caresses of the sun. There is as much difference between them as between the seventh and eighth chapters of the Epistle to the Romans. But each chapter represents an experience of the inner Christian life.
Perhaps the majority of Christians live and die in the third chapter, to their infinite loss. Comparatively few pass over into the fourth. Yet why, reader, should you not pass the boundary line today, and leave behind forever the bitter, unsatisfactory experiences which have become the normal rule of your existence? Come up out of the wilderness, in which you have wandered so long. Your sojourn there has been due, not to any desire on the part of God, or to any arbitrary appointment of his, or to any natural disability of your temperament; but to certain grave failures on your part, in the regimen of the inner life. The antipodes of your hitherto dreary experiences is Christ, the unsearchable riches of Christ; to be made a partaker of Christ: for Christ is the Promised Land that flows with milk and honey, in which we eat bread without scarceness, and gather the grapes and pomegranates and olives of rare spiritual blessedness.
WILDERNESS EXPERIENCES. Never did a nation occupy a prouder position than the children of Israel on the morning when they stood victorious on the shores of the Red Sea. The power of the tyrant had been broken by a series of marvelous miracles. The chivalry of Egypt had sunk as lead in the mighty waters of death. And as the sun rose behind the mountains of Edom, and struck a flashing pathway across the burnished mirror of the sea, it revealed long lines of corpses washed up to the water’s edge. Behind, Egypt left forever. Above, the fleecy cloud, chariot of God, tabernacle for his presence. Before, the Land of Promise. Many a man was already dreaming of vineyards and olive yards, and a settled home, all of which lay within two or three months’ easy march. But of those six hundred thousand men, flushed with victory and hope, two only were destined to see the land flowing with milk and honey; and these not until forty weary years had slowly passed away. And what became of all the rest? Alas! their carcasses fell in the wilderness. Instead of reposing in some family burying-place in the Land of Promise, their bodies were taken up one by one and laid in the desert waste; the sands their winding-sheet; the solitude their mausoleum. It took forty years for them all to die. And to accomplish this there must have been a high percentage of deaths. How dreary those incessant funerals! How monotonous the perpetual sounds of Oriental grief moaning through the camp! What wonder that Psalm 90., written among such scenes, is so inexpressibly sad! The wilderness experience is emblematic, amongst other things, of unrest, aimlessness, and unsatisfied longings. Unrest: the tents were constantly being struck to be erected again in much the same spot. Theirs a perpetual weariness; and they were not suffered to enter into God’s rest. Aimlessness: they wandered in the wilderness in a desert way; they found no city of habitation. Unsatisfied longings: hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted in them. But how typical of the lives of many amongst ourselves! Life is passing away so swiftly from us, but how unideal!
How few Christians seem to have learned the secret of the inner rest! How many are the victims of murmuring and discontent; or are bitten by the serpents of jealousy and passion, of hatred and ill-will! The almost universal experience tells of broken vows and blighted hopes, of purposeless wanderings, of a monotony of failure. Always striking and pitching the camp! Always surrounded by the same monotonous horizon, sand, with here and there a palm tree! Always fed on the same food, till the soul loathes it! Life passes away amid fret and chafing disappointment and weariness of existence, till we say with Solomon, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” One of the scourges of the desert is the sandstorm, when the hot wind is laden with light powdery dust, which finds its way into eyes and mouth and lungs; penetrating the clothes, stinging the skin, and making life almost unbearable. An apt illustration of the small annoyances, the petty irritations, the perpetual swarm of gnat-like stings, which invade our most comfortable circumstances, and make us question whether life is worth living. Then there is also the mirage. When from afar green glades seem to attract the weary traveler, who, as he reaches them, finds his hopes deceived and his thirst mocked. Emblem this of the disappointments to which they expose themselves who are ever seeking for some earthly good to mitigate the hardships and sorrows of their life, instead of seeking the fellowship and blessed help of the living Christ. They travel forward, thinking at every step that they are nearing an oasis in their desert march; but, as they approach, the fabric of their hopes fades away into the air.
“We are made partakers of Christ.” These words may either mean that all believers together partake of the fullness of Jesus, or that they all partake with him of the fullness of God. “Heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.” But whichever be the true rendering, the thought is inexpressibly helpful. Jesus Christ is our Promised Land, and our Joshua to lead us thither. He gives us rest. In him are orchards and vineyards, and all manner of precious things. His comfort for our sorrow; his rest for our weariness; his strength for our weakness; his purity for our corruption; his ever-present help for our need. Oh, blessed Jesus, surely it is the wonder of heaven that we make so little of thee!
THE CAUSE OF THE WILDERNESS EXPERIENCE. They could not enter in because of unbelief. See how unbelief raises a barrier which shuts us out of blessing. A fortune may have been left you; but if you do not believe the intelligence and apply for it, you will not profit by it. A regiment of angels may be passing by your home, with blessings in their hands that might enrich you forever; but if you do not believe the tidings that they are on the march, you will not go out to greet or welcome them. A noble character may rear itself in the neighborhood in which you live, or the society in which you move; but if you do not believe in it, you will derive no stimulus or comfort from its genial and helpful influence. So whatever Christ may be, and however near, he will be nothing to you unless you have learned to trust him.
There are three conditions in which unbelief thrives with us, as with the children of Israel: they murmured. The first outbreak was in the wilderness of Sin (Exod.xvi.), within a few days of the Exodus. There was no bread. The provisions hastily brought from Egypt were consumed. They had their kneading-troughs, but no flour to knead. There was no organized commissariat. “And the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness: and the children of Israel said unto them, Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” The second outbreak was at Rephidim (Exod. xvii.). There was no water. The scanty desert brooks were heaps of scorching stones, and not a leaf of vegetation trembled in the burning sunshine. And again the sullen sounds of discontent were heard as the people muttered their belief that they had been brought out of Egypt to perish there. But the most serious outbreak occurred shortly after they left Sinai (Num. xiii.). The green hills of Palestine at last appeared in view, and spies were sent forward to search the land. After forty days they returned laden with luscious fruits; but they had a story to tell of the strength and fortifications of the Canaanites, which filled the people with dismay; and “all the people murmured against Moses and against Aaron, and said, Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt.” “Yea, they despised the pleasant land, they believed not his word; but murmured in their tents, and hearkened not unto the voice of the Lord. Therefore he lifted up his hand unto them, that he would overthrow them in the wilderness” (Psa. cvi. 24-26). A murmuring, complaining heart is one which has already commenced to disbelieve in the wise and loving lead of Christ, and in which unbelief will thrive.
“They departed from the living God.” God is the Home and Source of life. From him, as from a fountain, all things derive their being, strength, and beauty. If Israel had remained in living union with him, there would have been no failure in their supplies; and there would have been sufficient grace to make the people calm and restful and strong amid these privations and difficulties. But they departed from him. They thought they could do better for themselves. They forsook the Fountain of living water, and went up into the hills to hew out for themselves broken, i.e., cracked cisterns, which could hold no water. Of the Rock that begat them they grew unmindful; and so became as the desert tamarisk, which inhabits dull and uninhabited wastes, in contrast to the tree whose roots are fed by rivers, and whose arms shadow generations. Let us ask ourselves whether there has been any declension in our heart-religion, less prayerfulness, less closeness in our walk with God, less enjoyment in the worship of his house; for, if so, unbelief is sure to manifest itself, as the fungus which grows fat on the damp and foetid soil. Unbelief cannot live in the sunlight of fellowship with God.
They failed to learn the lessons of the past. They did not deny the past. They would have told you with flashing eyes the wonderful story of deliverance. But they did not trust God’s love and wisdom; they did not rely on his repeated promises that he would most certainly bring them in as he had already brought them out; they did not find in the past a guarantee that he would not fail nor forsake them. At Sin they should have said, “He gave us these bodies with these appetites and needs: we may trust him to provide them with food. ‘Our heavenly Father knows that we have need of all these things.'” At Marah they should have said, “He gave us manna, surely he can supply our thirst.” At Paran they should have said, “God has promised to give us the land; and so, though the Canaanites are strong, and their cities walled to heaven, we will dare believe in him.” Instead of this they cried, “He smote the rock, and the waters gushed out; and the streams overflowed. Can he give bread also? Can he give flesh for his people?”
As we pass through life we should carefully store our hearts with the memory of God’s great goodness, and fetch from past deliverances the assurances that he will never leave, neither forsake. Has he conveyed us across the Atlantic to leave us to drown in a ditch? Has he been with us in six troubles to desert us in the seventh? Has he saved, and can he not keep? Has he redeemed us from hell, and can he not bring us to heaven?
“His love in time past forbids us to think
He’ll leave us at last in trouble to sink;
Each sweet Ebenezer we have in review
Confirms his good pleasure to help us right through.”
If we would guard against unbelief, we should reinforce our faith by constantly recapitulating the story of God’s past dealings; and thus through the stream of memory the uplands of our life will send their deposits of blessed helpfulness to reinforce us in our daily anxieties and perplexities. “The Lord hath been mindful of us, he will bless us.” “If, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.” You were happy in your childhood; your early days were set in a golden frame; but dear ones have vanished, as the oak’s shadow from the forest undergrowth, and you feel unprotected and lonely: but the God of your childhood will not be less thoughtful of you than in those happy bygone days. You have stepped out on the waters, and as the storm threatens you, you almost wish yourself back; but he who was with you in the fair haven will be as near you when the winds rave and the waves lift up their voice. You are on the point of exchanging the flesh-pots of Egypt for the new land of Canaan, with its blessed promise; and on the way, heart and flesh fail at the new and untried scenes that daunt and perplex: but he who delivered you from Pharaoh can shield you from Amalek; he who cleft the Red Sea will divide the Jordan.
INSPIRED CAUTIONS. ” Take heed lest there be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God.” Unbelief is the child, not of the head, but of the heart. It is always well to know the source of disease, then the physician can attack it in its citadel. If unbelief were the creature of our intellect, we must needs meet it there with argument; but since it is the product of a wrong state of heart, of an evil heart, we must meet it there. “This,” says William Law, “is an eternal truth, which you cannot too much reflect upon, that reason always follows the state of the heart; and what your heart is, that is your reason. If your heart is full of sentiments, of penitence, and of faith, your reason will take part with your heart; but if your heart is shut up in death and dryness, your reason will delight in nothing but dry objections and speculations.” Guard against an evil heart. If the heart were in a right condition, faith would be as natural to it as flowers in spring; or as smiles on the face of healthy, innocent childhood. As soon as the heart gets into an evil state—harboring sin; cherishing things which you would not excuse in others, but condone in yourself; permitting unholy thoughts and desires to remain unchecked and unjudged, then, beware! for such a heart is no longer able to believe in God. Its head turns dizzy; its eyes are blinded; and it is in imminent peril of falling irretrievably.
Take heed, then; watch and pray; examine yourselves whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves! Expose yourselves to the searching light of God’s Spirit. Cultivate the honest and good heart. Most of the infidelity of the present day arises from man’s disinclination to retain God in his knowledge. More skepticism may be traced to a neglected prayer closet than to the arguments of infidels or the halls of secularists. First, men depart from God; then they deny him. And, therefore, for the most part, unbelief will not yield to clever sermons on the evidences, but to home thrusts that pierce the points of the harness to the soul within. “Keep thy heart beyond all keeping, since out of it are the issues of life.” Guard especially against heart-hardening. Hard hearts are unbelieving ones; therefore beware of ossification of the heart. The hardest hearts were soft once, and the softest may get hard. The chalk which now holds the fossil shells was once moist ooze. The horny hand of toil was once full of soft dimples. The murderer once shuddered when, as a boy, he crushed a worm. Judas must have been once a tender and impressionable lad. But hearts harden gradually, like the freezing of a pond on a frosty night. At first the process can be detected by none but a practiced eye. Then there is a thin film of ice, so slender that a pin or needle would fall through. At length it will sustain a pebble, and, if winter still hold its unbroken sway, a child, a man, a crowd, a cart will follow. We get hard through the steps of an unperceived process. The constant hearing the truth without obeying it. The knowing a better and doing the worse. The cherishing of unholy things that seem fair as angels. The refusal to confess the wrong and to profess the right. All these things harden. Beware of the deceitfulness of sin! Take heed to yourselves! Exhort one another daily.
Guard against a fickle heart. This is the sin which this epistle especially opposes. There are many around us who eagerly embrace a novelty; but when the stress comes, as it always does, like the settling of a house, there is a slackening off. We must hold fast our boldness and the glorying of our hope steadfast to the end. We can only become partakers of Christ if we hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm to the end. We should see not only to our own heart, but to the heart of our brethren; and exhort one another daily, watching over each other, and seeking to revive drooping piety and reanimate fainting hope. Let us take heed to these things today. Now is God’s time. The Holy Ghost saith, Today. Every day of delay is dangerous, because the hardening process becomes more habitual. Today restore what you have taken wrongfully; adjust a wrong, promote a right. Today renounce some evil habit, some unhallowed pastime, some unlawful friendship. Today reach out after some further realization of the fair ideal whch beckons you. Today leave the wilderness forever, and enter by faith the Land of Promise.
F.B. MEYER, The Way Into The Holiest