The sea is an emblem of the world. As the sea has in it various living creatures and sea monsters, so has this world. In the sea is "that leviathan;" (Ps. 104:26) and in the world is Satan, the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience. (Eph. 2:2) In the sea there are fish to be taken by net or by hook; and some that are taken are cast away as useless and destroyed. In this world sinners are gathered by the gospel net and testimony; but all that are outwardly gathered by the preaching of the word are not saved, for to some the preacher is a savour of life unto life, and to others of death unto death. "The kingdom of heaven is like unto a net that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind; which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away. So shall it be at the end of the world." (Matt. 13:47-49.)
Fishermen may fitly represent preachers of the gospel. The calling of fishermen is mean in the eyes of many; so is the true ministerial office, though in itself honorable. I well remember when, in my state of ignorance, I viewed the servants of God as the worst beings in the world. Surely I do not deserve the honor the Lord has conferred upon me to be a preacher of Christ's gospel! Truly a man must have his mind made up to bear and suffer reproach; and the more successful in the Lord's work he really is, the more reproach he is likely to meet with. It was an observation of Luther's somewhere: "That preacher that raises no persecution is not the gospel preacher."
The fisherman is exposed to many hardships, and meets with many disappointments. One of them complained to his Master one morning thus: "We have toiled all the night, and taken nothing." So it is often with God's real servants. They toil hard in prayer, in searching out the mind of God in his Word, and often labor in preaching beyond their natural strength, and see but little good done by their labors. If they are a little encouraged by the weight of their net, alas! alas! the produce turns out a dog-fish, or a tongue-fish, or fish all head! These disappointments have not a little tried and puzzled me; and but for the strong hand of God, I certainly should have taken up an easier trade than a fisherman's calling long since. But such words as these are made a spur to fresh gracious exertions: "Blessed are ye that sow beside all waters." "Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season." "In due season we shall reap if we faint not." "The foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his." These words and other such encourage me sometimes, till with fresh courage I exclaim, "For Zion's sake I will not hold my peace." (Isa. 62:1) Also fishermen endure great hardships by storms at sea, that come on suddenly and unexpectedly, as well as by poverty at home. So do most of the servants of God "endure hardness," and many of them suffer much by poverty. Preaching the gospel faithfully, and maintaining an honest conscience and deportment, is not the road to popularity and wealth.
Fishermen, however they may be despised and neglected, are absolutely necessary. So preachers of the gospel are necessary, and God has promised to furnish Zion with them: "I will give you pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding." (Jer. 3:15) Paul says, "How shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach except they be sent?" As fishermen are ordained by providence to take the fish out of the sea, so the servants of God are ordained to their work by the chief Shepherd and Bishop of souls, and set apart by the Holy Ghost; as truly so now as they were when he said, "Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them." God's servants are instruments in his hand to gather out his elect from the world and from lifeless professors, who have a name to live, but are dead to God, and so destitute of real religion.
Once more. There are times when fishermen cannot fish by reason of the stormy weather. So there are times in the lives of most of God's servants when they are obliged to be silent. Penal laws and severe persecutions have silenced many of the Lord's most highly-favored servants; as the history of the church proves. But if nothing of that nature should be against them, there are other things which may hinder them; as the dreadful temptations of Satan suddenly and unexpectedly seizing them; so that their courage fails, and their strength is dried like a potsherd. The strongest man in real confidence is like a bruised reed, if God leave him to the power of the enemy. But Jesus holds the stars in his right hand; and out of his hand they cannot fall, though they may not shine for a time, by reason of the clouds of darkness that cover them. Or bodily infirmities may prevent God's servants from attending to their public work; as was the case with that blessed man of God, James Barry, for thirty years of his life; and is now the case with a gracious servant of God, Mr. A., of Mayfield, Sussex. This must be a singular trial to a minister of Christ, but the ways of God are in the deep, and doubtless he does all things right, however he may exercise the faith and patience of his children.
But when fishermen cannot fish, they appear to have plenty to do, such as mending their nets, repairing their tackle, or gathering bait for their lines. So when the Lord's servants cannot preach, they have plenty of labor. 0 what meditation, what heart-searching, what self-examination, what diligence, what earnest prayer to God is really necessary for a preacher of the gospel! The preacher of Christ may work hard in the pulpit; but I believe most of God's real servants find harder work out of the pulpit than they do in. It will often happen too that when the preacher is best pleased with his labors, his hearers are not so well pleased as he may imagine. Perhaps they will cavil most when he thinks they have least reason. These things may lead some sober-minded people to think that the situation of a preacher, like that of a fisherman, is not the most enviable in the world. But if the preacher should grow sulky with his Master, or sluggish in his work, because of the disagreeable things attending it, let him call to mind his former engagement and prayer that the Spirit led him to make; which was something like this: "Lord, I do not mind what I suffer, or where I am sent, so that thou dost condescend to use me as an instrument for thy glory and thy people's good."
Again. If the fisherman make no use, or bad use, of his leisure time, how badly is he prepared for the next opportunity to put to sea! But his is only temporal loss, that he may sustain thereby. Ye spiritual fishermen, ye need grace to well repair your nets, and listen to your word, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." If sin has defiled your conscience, and weakened your confidence, if you are brought into reproach through some unguarded and heedless conduct before the church or the world, may the Spirit of God help you to double your diligence, and hasten to God's pardon office. The doors are open night and day; and over each door is written in golden letters, large and fair: "Yea, for the rebellions also" God help you to go with a blushing face and an upright heart, and to repent and do the first works.
The fisherman cannot be sure of success, though all things necessary be done in order thereto; but he lets go his net and his lines, patiently waiting and hoping that the results will pay him for his toils. This may teach God's servants the necessity there is of the graces of patience and hope in the midst of their many disappointments; for a fisherman is more entirely dependent upon the providence of God for success than are many workmen. So are the Lord's servants in their ministerial work entirely dependent on the Lord, both for themselves and their hearers. Who can command himself, and govern himself and his passions? And who or what human being can command the will of others? Who can bring the mind of man into sweet subjection to the law of Christ? Paul laboured more abundantly than all the apostles; "yet not I" (see what humility), "but the grace of God which was with me."
Lastly. It has been noticed that if one fisherman has been a little more successful than another, some disappointed fisherman has been moved to jealousy and envy, and has put out some hasty speeches, far enough from good nature. Nay; some have thought that many blessed ministers of Christ have something of the same in their constitution! But if the precious fish be caught by the gospel, never mind who caught it. Lord, keep thy servants from envy! The successful party may indeed not be blameless; their success may have led them to think and speak contemptuously of their brethren. It would be well for such to study this text: "Neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth anything; but God, that giveth the increase." However, the deep study of this and many other texts is reserved for a bed of affliction, where generally the Lord teaches his servants many humbling lessons.
"Am I a servant of the Lord,
A fisherman of Jesu's sending?
Then may I preach his faithful word,
Or if not so, my nets be mending.
"0 Lord, the seas are rough and high,
And I can badly stand the billows;
Cast on me thy propitious eye;
For now my harp is on the willows.
"Direct me where and when and how
To preach thy word with true affection,
And lowly at thy footstool bow,
To prove I'm thine by free election.
"Lord, give thy servants more to feel
Their helpless state, their want of all things;
Their breaches thou alone canst heal,
And are they not too weak for small things?