WELL, friend, trudging up the hill of life, staff in hand, and feeling--
"I'm but a stranger here;
Heaven is my home,"
we are one with you. Let us have a little converse together by the way upon heavenly things. What a mercy that our faces are not hellward, but heavenward! Who put us on the heavenly course? Surely we did not get there as the result of our natural wills. No, no! Grace puts us there; grace keeps us there, and will do till we reach the desired home. We certainly sometimes get into a slough of Despond by the way; but, blessed be God, we still come out of it with our faces Zionward. We have plenty of foes without and fears within, but still, through thick and thin, grace keeps our faces Zionward. We should again and again have made shipwreck of faith, if left to ourselves; but "the righteous shall hold on his way, and he that hath clean hands shall wax stronger and stronger" (Job 17:9)--that is, he that is sanctified by divine grace.
But now to our portion, and may divine teaching lead us to weigh and measure it, to our soul's comfort and profit. It seems to suggest to us--
First, the child of God brought into the way to Zion.
Secondly, the child of God kept in the way to Zion.
Thirdly, the child of God brought safely home to Zion.
"They shall ask the way to Zion, with their faces thitherward."
First, the child of God brought into the way to Zion. "They shall ask the way." Surely, if one asks the way anywhere, he desires to go to that place. It is so spiritually. If any are found asking the way to Zion, it must be that they desire and are anxious to go there. And whence such desires? They are not the outflowings of carnal nature, for "the carnal mind is enmity against God" and the things of God, desiring neither Zion nor Zion's King. No--
"These feeble desires, those wishes so weak,
'Tis Jesus inspires, and bids you still seek;
His Spirit will cherish the life He first gave;
You never shall perish if Jesus can save."
And Jesus says, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you." Let us see, then, how this giving, finding, and opening are brought about. I think it is in this wise; and I write not in theory or speculation, but in the language of personal experience--an experience which must give God all the glory.
Well, beloved, God having chosen a people unto Himself, and written their names in the Lamb's book of life from all eternity; Christ having by covenant arrangement effected all for their everlasting salvation; it is now the work of the Spirit to bring out and to bring in the elect vessel of mercy. It may be He finds him or her blessed with godly parentage, being "trained up in the fear and nurture of the Lord," and yet only trained as far as human help can go; and there must be an emptying, a bringing down, a heartfelt knowledge of sin never before experienced, beyond all human training and teaching. No; God the Spirit's work is unmistakable in its melting power and unfolding of sin, on the one hand, and of the Saviour on the other. But very often no such home training and teaching as we have referred to is experienced--yea, the very opposite, and everything is dead against divine things. Who has not known the Lord to bring out some of His own from the most ungodly surroundings--possibly the one and only one in a family? This makes grace the more manifest and signal, and concerning such we feel, "Is not this a brand plucked from the burning?"
The writer knew one, long since gathered home to glory, who, in opposition to a mother's prayers, was bent upon going to the theater. God stopped him on the way, brought him to the ground, brought him on to his knees, and his experience was similar to that of Saul of Tarsus, while the cry went up, "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?" He knew another (aye, more than one) who, like the prodigal son, spent his all--his health, his strength, his moral powers--in riotous living, and, far off from his God, gave full play to the lusts of the flesh and inordinate desires of the carnal nature. But God the Spirit interposed. Such were vessels of mercy all along, watched over by God the Spirit when they had no care for themselves or their souls; but, at the set time to favor Zion, they were bidden to arise, and go to the Father's house, who, in spite of all their wickedness and waywardness, received them in the arms of love and the embrace of sovereign grace and mercy.
Such instances could be multiplied a hundredfold; and, while the cry of many religionists in our day is, "Only believe, and Christ will save you," my cry, and the cry of those who have experienced such mercy at the Lord's hand, is, "God saved me. God did all for me, or I should have been a lost man. Now I believe, as the result of that salvation." Faith is the outgoing of life divine. "He that believeth hath everlasting life."
What say you, dear reader, to such an order? Is it not God's order? and must we not bless and adore His name for it? I am sure we must, if taught by His Holy Spirit.
And now, God having saved, is it all smooth work to heaven? No, indeed! Here the conflict begins. As dear Hart truthfully writes--
"How strange is the course that a Christian must steer!
How perplexed is the path he must tread!
The hope of his happiness rises from fear,
And his life he receives from the dead.
"His fairest pretensions must wholly be waived,
And his best resolutions be crossed,
Nor can he expect to be perfectly saved
Till he finds himself utterly lost.
"When all this is done, and his heart is assured
Of the total remission of sins,
When his pardon is signed, and his peace is procured,
From that moment his conflict begins."
Have we not found, dear reader, this to be experimentally true? It is in this way, then, that the Lord brings out of an ungodly world His own, and puts such on the right way, with their faces Zionward.
That Scriptural word "found" seems to embody the whole point. Found by the Holy Spirit amidst the rubbish of the fall. Found, caught in the thicket of this world's sinfulness. Found running on in an ungodly course. Found in Satan's grasp and bondage, but fetched out by the Holy Spirit--the mighty power of the Strong One--the result of such power being that we become found in Christ--brought into vital union with Him--the inevitable climax of such a mighty work being that we shall be found with Him in glory, for the salvation wrought by the Eternal Three must be perfect and complete. Oh, this is the religion I, for one, glory in--a religion of safe standing and everlasting security.
But to our second point--the child of God kept in the way to Zion--another precious and full word, "kept." Kept as the apple of God's eye--that is, under His perpetual care and watchfulness, because so dear to Him. Kept, some of us can say, with Joshua, "alive and preserved these forty-and-five years in this wilderness world." Kept, as David says, from "the paths of the destroyer," by that God whose marvelous lovingkindness has been manifested throughout all the journey of life. "Kept", as Peter says--and had indeed reason to say so--"by the power of God, through faith, unto salvation." (1 Peter 1:5) Yes, kept for the kingdom of glory. Is it not a blessed and precious word? As in the past, so in the future, for we shall be kept to the end. Strangers, indeed, we feel. We have no sympathy with the world, nor worldlings with us. Our citizenship is in heaven. And what matter if the world points the finger of scorn at us, and calls us singular, peculiar, narrow-minded, and the like? We can afford to rejoice that it is so, for it marks us as not of the world, and God holds them in derision who deride His own.
It is said, however, that they "wax stronger and stronger," but methinks that sometimes they feel that they get weaker and weaker. And yet (strange anomaly to many) it is going from strength to strength, for in our weakness we throw ourselves upon the Lord, and He gives strength from above. But, in and of ourselves, beloved, we remain--do we not?--"no might" ones, and never felt more dependent upon our God for everything we need--so helpless--so nothing at all. Growing better, progressing in sanctification, and getting more holy, are terms not in the vocabulary of our experience.
We shall see this if we refer to our passage. The prophecy was concerning a time of deep trouble and distress--that the children of Israel and the children of Judah should be found weeping and seeking their God, "asking the way to Zion, with their faces thitherward."
Ah! beloved, is it not just so with us? There is much in connection with our land, as well as within our more immediate circle, that causeth us depression and distress, but it all makes the way to Zion the more precious, and the things of God our secret solace. And they are precious--nothing like them. Get with a poor saint who has to tell of Jesus, of His salvation, of His love and mercy, of the Holy Spirit's divine leadings in providence, and of His divine communications in grace, and oh, the happiness, peace, and enjoyment that are produced in the recountings! There is no such happiness to be found in the world. We trace often the ungodly course of a worldling. Such seem so full of life, vigor, and sprightliness. But watch and wait. Look on a few years, and how often do you see the once gay one become a miserable wreck of a man, with no hope beyond the grave, which is being so fast approached.
Well, as the children of God, with their faces Zionward, press on, how helpless they feel--how dependent upon their God! Very emphatic is that Scriptural expression concerning us--we are but as "creatures of a day." This is so in the aspect of the brevity of life. "We are but of yesterday, and know nothing, because our days upon the earth are a shadow." Again, it is so with regard to our entire dependence upon God for the very breath we breathe, and everything we have need of. So again in our feelings and faintings. How soon we forget past mercies, in the exigency and experiences of the day! How completely this was the case with the children of Israel, after the wondrous deliverance God had wrought for them! "And Israel saw the great work which the Lord did upon the Egyptians, and the people feared the Lord, and believed the Lord and His servant Moses." Yes, but how soon it was otherwise! True, Moses bursts forth in his memorable song of thanksgiving and rejoicing, proclaiming that the Lord was his strength and song, and had become his salvation, promising, in the delight of his soul, to prepare Him an habitation and exalt Him. And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, catching the spirit of Moses, takes the timbrel in her hand, and bids all her women join in "singing unto the Lord, who had triumphed gloriously." All very well and joyous. But, as soon as they are led out into the wilderness of Shur, and found no water to drink, for it was bitter, their hearts sunk. They forgot the recent mighty deliverance, and soon began to murmur against Moses and his God. But the Lord, in His tender mercy and compassion, bids them take means to make the bitter waters sweet, leading them also to a spot where there were both shade and stream--"And they came to Elim, where were twelve wells of water, and three-score and ten palm trees; and they encamped there by the waters." All now must be peace and comfort, and their hearts rejoiced. Ah! but what creatures of a day! See, they must be on the move, and pressing on, and coming into the wilderness of Sin. Again their hearts are downcast. Elim with its shade and streams are forgotten, and their rebellious and unbelieving exclamation is, "Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, and when we did eat bread to the full,"--a statement which must have been utterly false, for they could only remember that time as one when they ate fish, as they said, freely, which was doubtful, and their chief food was cucumbers and melons, leeks, onions, and garlick. (Num. 11:5) Nor does their leader, Moses, after all his declaration of what he would do for the Lord, appear to be stronger-minded than his followers. "I am not able," he says to his God, "to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me. And if Thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray Thee, out of hand, if I have found favour in Thy sight, and let me not see my wretchedness." Oh, what mistrust! What a creature of a day! And what saith the Lord God of Israel to all this? Would it have been surprising if His wrath and been kindled, and He had brought judgments upon them? But no. Mark His loving and gracious response to it all--"Then said the Lord unto Moses, Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you." What a God of long-suffering and loving-kindness! In spite of their faint-heartedness, He regarded their affliction when He heard their cry.
Oh, it is all the same with us, beloved, is it not? How soon we forget the past, so fraught with blessings, and dwell with murmuring of spirit upon some present trouble--trust all gone! Are we not verily creatures of a day?
There was an occasion in the history of the children of Israel (indeed, one among many such) when they were in a position of great peril. Their enemies had come up against them to battle in such numbers that they were as "the grasshoppers of the field." Now, note what God's people did under such circumstances, and how the Lord worked for them marvelously and mercifully. "Jehoshaphat feared, and set himself to seek the Lord." Ah! that is safe work, seeking the Lord, for none ever seek Him in vain; and catching his spirit in their helpless condition, the children of Judah also gathered together and "asked help of the Lord." Did He fail them? Did He bring them to the perilous position which some dare to take in this day, declaring that it is of no use praying to God--that prayer is a failure? Mark the sequel. Addressing Him as "the Lord God of power and might," while they had none, and asking a fresh manifestation of that power now, to go forth for their deliverance and salvation, the Lord worked in His own wondrous way, granting unto them complete deliverance, and causing them to triumph over their enemies, although they were but a handful compared to the numbers that came up against them to battle.
Oh, beloved, may we not well be ashamed of our unbelief and want of faith? So soon are we down; so soon do we sink. Again and again have we need of the admonition of our Lord, "Oh, thou of little faith, wherefore dost thou doubt?" Pity, dear Lord, our infirmities! Help on still, and bring us to a more tranquil spirit with regard to Thy dealings and permittings, and may we do as God's servant instructed the children of Israel to do, under the circumstances referred to--"Believe in the Lord your God, so shall ye be established: believe His prophets, so shall ye prosper." Yes, the testimony of the Word is true in every point and at every time. Lord, give us grace to live upon it, and to live it out, in spite of all apparently adverse circumstances, believing that grace will prevail, sooner or later, and the Lord Jehovah will, in His workings of that grace, silence our enemies, and bring glory to His own name.
Well might they call the valley in which the Lord worked so wondrously for them, the valley of Berachah, that is, "the valley of blessing," for there the Lord blessed them, in His love and favor, and they stood up to praise Him. In another place the valley is called "the valley of Baca."
Have you noted that in the margin it is, "of mulberry trees?" What does this mean? Why, I take it that it is the valley of trembling, for have you not observed, before a storm, how the leaves of the trees tremble and quiver? This is peculiarly so with regard to the mulberry tree. And do not we become tremblers in approach of the storms of life? But, beloved, we are, remember, all the while passing through the valley of Baca, and the best plan for us in thus passing through is to make it a well--that is, dig by prayer, dig by the means of grace, dig by searching the Scriptures, and we shall gain the flowings in of divine grace, like rain filing the pools.
And what, to my mind, is a very precious way of gaining a blessing is, when we think our pains and sufferings, trials and adversities, so great, let us go and visit some tried brother or sister in their abodes of suffering, and mostly we shall find that they are called to bear far deeper trials than we are, and in many cases, by their meekness and patience, will put us to shame, with our repinings and rebellion.
And what is it that has been our stay and support along the thorny path to Zion? I feel that two things especially have been my stronghold, namely, the preciousness of Christ, and the power of the Spirit. Yes, Christ's preciousness has again and again taken me out of self, as it has come home with a melting, mellowing influence--His dear name, as "ointment poured forth" to my soul--His endearing love--His tenderness of spirit--His hallowed sympathy. How truly has He been felt to be "the Chiefest among then thousand, and the altogether lovely!" None like Him--none to be compared with Him.
And then, beloved, fresh views of Him gained along the pathway, have they not been a comfort to us? Oh, are you not constrained to say with the writer, and all believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, "He is precious?" He has been precious; He will be precious to the end.
And then what a stronghold the power of the Holy Spirit has been to us! What should we have done without it? He has holden us up--ah! ever since we were born. It is true He has showed us great troubles and adversities, yet has He turned again and again and refreshed us, and brought us out of the depths of the earth. Many things have been hard, very hard, to bear, and, if left to ourselves, we should have sank under them. But He has comforted us on every side, and now that we have been so long on the road, and proved Him faithful, it becometh us to honor Him, and to "tell of His power to all them that are yet to come."
Dear reader, if He has put your face Zionward, I am sure you will go with the writer in these things, and say, "Yes, my stronghold, too, has been the preciousness of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit."
Christ has guided our feet into the way of peace, and the Holy Spirit has guided our feet in the way of safety and salvation; and now, in spite of all opposition, in spite of Satan's rage, in spite of "the devices and desires of our own hearts," we are still found with our faces Zionward. What a mercy! Resting in Christ, finding Him to be our "All and in all", His love, wisdom, and condescension manifested every step of the homeward way. We cannot express a thousandth part of His preciousness--of His suitability to our hearts need. What we seem to want above everything is, unfoldings of Him as we go along, which shall endear Him more than ever to us--to live nearer to Him--to become absorbed in Him--to be blessed by our God and Father with "all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ." Oh, to get such an exalted standing, such hallowed enjoyment! How empty and vain does this world seem! How shallow both men and things appear!
Dearest Lord, do grant that both reader and writer may live as heirs of glory, to disdain the toys of time, and, in our onward progress heavenward, have our thoughts and hearts set upon eternal realities, then shall we truly realize what it is to have our faces set Zionward.
Again, what a mercy it is that, as time rolls on, bringing incessant change, the Lord's dear people are found still in the same good old way, with their faces Zionward! We feel this particularly in meeting with friends whom we have not seen for many years--Christian friends who knew us in earlier days. In some instances, so changed have countenances become, and the features so marred by age, that we can scarcely believe our friends to be the same whom we once knew. But when we come to talk over matters, and recount the Lord's leadings in providence and grace, it seems such a superabounding mark of His goodness that, whatever changes there may be with regard to the poor frail body, we are still found with our faces Zionward--still lovers of Jesus, pressing onwards and homewards to the heavenly city of our God.
And, looking at the same matter in another aspect, what a mercy, too, in this age of religious change, when many are carried away on the right hand and on the left, that we are kept in the good old paths of covenant mercy and grace. And this mercy is especially brought before us in the language which follows our passage. "My people", saith the Lord, "hath been lost sheep; their shepherds have caused them to go astray; they have turned them away on the mountains; they have gone from mountain to hill; they have forgotten their resting-place." No, it is not so with us, blessed be our God, who has kept us. None of the so-called shepherds have been permitted to cause us to go astray. We love the same truths as we did years ago--yea, increasingly love them. We cannot do with anything but "sound doctrine". The grand principles of our most holy faith are still dear to us. We have by grace maintained our standing thereon, and, far from having forgotten our resting-place, our song still is--
"Other refuge have I none;
Hangs my helpless soul on Him."
Christ first--Christ all.
We have referred to the Zionward course being often up steep hills, and it is so. Oh, beloved, it does surprise us sometimes to think of what the Lord permits us to pass through, and we are apt to say it is so mysterious, we cannot understand it--so opposite to what we think best, and so hard for flesh and blood to bear. But, dear child of God, so deeply tried in consequence of conflicting circumstances, such is only the reasoning of the carnal mind. Oh, for faith to view things as all well and right, and that all such tiresome uprisings as we have referred to are among the all things that work for our good! We may be certain of this, that, with our faces Zionward, all these conflicting surroundings will tend to quicken our pace and accelerate our progress to the heavenly home. They will also sicken our taste for this world and all its ways, and make us yearn for a closer walk with God all the way. But trial and temptation must come in some form or another.
"From this there can be none exempt;
'Tis God's own wise decree;
Satan the weakest saint will tempt,
Nor is the strongest free."
I seem to have been set in "slippery places." My treadings had well-nigh slipped, yet mercifully upheld. Oh, there is indeed a great deal in that word "kept"! "It is good for me to hold me fast by God, to put my trust in the Lord God, and to praise Him in the gates of the daughters of Zion."
The Lord has, at all events, promised us two things by the way, namely, bread and water--"Thy bread shall be given thee, and thy waters shall be sure." Think you this has reference only to that which is temporal? I do not. I think it equally bears upon the spiritual, and He has promised and will give us, on the way and throughout the way, the Bread of Life, which is Christ, and the Water of Life, which is Christ also. Having Christ, then, in this two-fold fullness, we cannot fail; so will the Lord's dear people be kept and supported in the rough but right way, with their faces Zionward.
And this brings us to the last point of our portion--the child of God, brought by divine grace into the way that leads to Zion, and kept by mighty power in that way throughout his pilgrimage, shall surely be brought home to Zion with shouting and joy. Time speeds. Every day, as the shades of evening draw over the scene, we are "a day's march nearer home." The tide of time is ever flowing, and we are inevitably being carried onwards. This was forcibly brought before me the other day, in sitting upon a breakwater on the sea-shore. I had but a few minutes before been walking up and down upon a strip of sand, and even while I did so the sea had flowed so quickly behind me that I had to make a rapid exit, or it would have been over my ankles. Then, sitting down upon the before-named breakwater, I was struck with the rapidity with which the tide flowed in, causing me to move from my position higher up. Ah! so it is with the tide of life. Rapidly it flows on, and we are being carried upon it to the desired haven. What a mercy our faces are kept Zionward, our feet in the right way, and there is no uncertainty about our reaching the eternal home! But oh, the way--so much to worry; so much to depress and cast down.
God give us faith to look to the beyond. Our trials then will only seem as pebbles on the sea-shore.
Well, beloved, be things as they may, grasp at our experience on the breakwater. We are but, through the flowing tide, moving our position higher up, till at last we shall hear the mandate of the Captain of our salvation, "Come up higher still!" Then shall we reach the heights of Zion itself, and appear before our God.
But we are not there yet, dear reader, and it is certain that, in our still onward course, we shall have much to beat us down and ballast us. If we get a little elevated from some spiritual joy--it may be, through the sealing home of some portion, or some melting under the faithful preaching of the Word--how soon gone! How soon something rises to cast us down! Doubtless it is well that it should be so. We need the balancing.
One thing is certain--God's love is immutable and unchangeable, and the discipline leads us out of self to Him who is "the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever."
The other Sabbath, I got a very precious lifting up while feelingly singing the words--
"Had I a glimpse of Thee, my God,
Kingdoms and men would vanish soon--
Vanish as though I saw them not--
As a dim candle dies at noon."
I did get a glimpse of Him--men and things did vanish--but alas! it was of short duration, for they came up again to view at the very threshold of the house of God. And so it is when we return to our accustomed position. Oh, how little talk of Christ! How little converse on the best things! As a dear saint of God once observed, "You can talk about Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so, but where's Christ?" Where, indeed? Oh, it is astonishing that we who are expecting and longing "to be with Christ, which is far better," should be found talking so little about Him, and telling so feebly of Him! But He knows our weakness, and pities us with loving sympathy. Our hearts are with Him--this He knows, and, with all our failings, we can say, "Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that we love Thee." And when we gain the harp of gold, and join the choir of heaven, methinks none will sing louder the dear Redeemer's praise than he who pens these things concerning Him by the way.
But I must close. Beloved, you and I are but treading the old beaten pathway of tribulation to the heavenly home. It has been the same with those who have headed us, and reached home first. Eminent servants of God had, one and all of them, a suffering life on earth. Deep waters they all passed through, and floods of tears did they shed, on the way to glory; yet they had a peace which the world cannot give, and bright prospects beyond it. So have we. Oh, then, let the thought of the beyond cheer us as faith sings--
"The golden palace of my God,
Towering above the clouds I see;
Beyond the cherubs' bright abode;
Higher than angels' thoughts can be.
How can I in these courts appear
Without a wedding garment on?
Conduct me, Thou Life-Giver, there--
Conduct me to Thy glorious throne,
And clothe me with the robes of light,
And lead me through sin's darksome night,
My saviour and my God."