2 Kings xxiii. 3, 4, 25, 26. "And the king stood by a pillar, and made a covenant before the Lord, to "walk after the Lord, and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all their heart and all their soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people stood to the covenant. And the king commanded Hilkiah the high priest, and the priests of the second order, and the keepers of the door, to bring forth out of the temple of the Lord all the vessels that were made for Baal, and for the grove, and for all the host of heaven: and he burned them without Jerusalem in the fields of Kidron, and carried the ashes of them unto Beth-el. . . . And like unto him was there no king before him, that turned to the Lord with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him. Notwithstanding the Lord turned not from the fierceness of his great wrath, wherewith his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations that Manasseh had provoked him withal."
You heard this chapter read as the first lesson for this afternoon's service; and a lesson it is indeed--a lesson for you and for me, as it was a lesson for our forefathers. If you had been worshipping in this church three hundred years ago, you would have understood, without my telling you, why the good and wise men who shaped our prayer-book chose this chapter to be read in church. You would have applied the words of it to the times in which you were living. You would have felt that the chapter spoke to you at once of joy and hope, and of sorrow and fear.
There is no doubt at all what our forefathers would have thought of, and did think of, when they read this chapter. The glorious reformation which young King Josiah made was to them the pattern of the equally glorious Reformation which was made in England somewhat more than three hundred years ago. Young King Josiah, swearing to govern according to the law of the Lord, was to them the pattern of young King Edward VI. determining to govern according to the laws of the Bible. The finding of the law of the Lord in Josiah's time, after it had been long lost, was to them the pattern of the sudden spread among them of the Bible, which had been practically hidden from them for hundreds of years, and was then translated into English and printed, and put freely into the hands of every man, rich and poor, who was able to read it. King Josiah's destruction of the idols, and the temples of the false gods, and driving out the wizards and workers with familiar spirits, were to them a pattern of the destruction of the monasteries and miraculous images and popish superstitions of every kind, the turning the monks out of their convents, and forcing them to set to honest work--which had just taken place throughout England. And the hearts of all true Englishmen were stirred up in those days to copy Josiah and the people of Jerusalem, and turn to the Lord with all their heart, and with all their soul, and with all their might, according to God's law and gospel, in the two Testaments, both Old and New.
One would have thought that at such a time the hearts of our forefathers would be full of nothing but hope and joy, content and thankfulness. And yet it was not so. One cannot help seeing that in the prayer-book, which was put together in those days, there is a great deal of fear and sadness. You see it especially in the Litany, which was to be said not only on Sundays, but on Wednesdays and Fridays also. Some people think the Litany painfully sad--too sad. It was not too sad for the time in which it was written. Our forefathers, three hundred years ago, meant what they said when they cried to God to have mercy upon them, miserable sinners, and not to remember their offences nor the offences of their forefathers, &c. They meant, and had good reason to mean, what they said, when they cried to God that those evils which the craft and subtilty of the devil and men were working against them might be brought to nought, and by the providence of His goodness be dispersed--to arise and help and deliver them for His name's sake and for His honour; and to turn from them, for the glory of His name, all those evils which they righteously had deserved. They were in danger and in terror, our forefathers, three hundred years ago. And when they heard this lesson read in church, it was not likely to make their terror less.
For what says the 26th verse of this chapter? "Notwithstanding," in spite of all this reformation, and putting away of idols and determining to walk according to the law of the Lord, "the Lord turned not from the fierceness of His great wrath, wherewith His anger was kindled against Judah." And what followed? Josiah was killed in battle--by his own fault too--by Pharaoh Nechoh, King of Egypt. And then followed nothing but disaster and misery. The Jews were conquered first by the King of Egypt, and taxed to pay to him an enormous tribute; and then, in the wars between Egypt and Babylon, conquered a second time by the King of Babylon, the famous Nebuchadnezzar, in that dreadful siege in which it is said mothers ate their own children through extremity of famine. And then after seventy years, after every one of that idolatrous and corrupt generation had died in captivity, the poor Jews were allowed to go back to their native land, chastened and purged in the fire of affliction, and having learnt a lesson which, to do them justice, they never forgot again, and have not forgotten to this day; that to worship a graven image, as well as to work unrighteousness, is abomination to the Lord-- that God, and God alone, is to be worshipped, and worshipped in holiness and purity, in mercy and in justice.
And it was some such fate as this, some terrible ruin like that of the Jews of old, that our forefathers feared three hundred years ago. Their hearts were not yet altogether right with God. They had not shaken off the bad habits of mind, or the bad morals either, which they had learnt in the old Romish times--too many of them were using their liberty as a cloak of licentiousness; and, under pretence of religion, plundering not only God's Church, but God's poor. And many other evils were rife in England then, as there are sure to be great evils side by side with great good in any country in times of change and revolution. And so our forefathers needed chastisement, and they had it. King Edward, upon whom the Protestants had set their hopes, died young; and then came times which tried them literally as by fire. First came the terrible persecutions in Queen Mary's time, when hundreds of good men and women were burnt alive for their religion. And even after her death, for thirty years, came times, such as Hezekiah speaks of--times of trouble and rebuke and blasphemy, plots, rebellions, civil war, at home and abroad; dangers that grew ever more and more terrible, till it seemed at last certain that England would be conquered, in the Pope's name, by the King of Spain: and if that had come to pass (and it all but came to pass in the famous year 1588), the King of Spain would have become King of England; the best blood of England would have been shed upon the scaffold; the best estates parted among Spaniards and traitors; England enslaved to the most cruel nation of those times; and the Inquisition set up to persecute, torture, and burn all who believed in what they called, and what is, the gospel of Jesus Christ. That was to have happened, and it was only, as our forefathers confessed, by the infinite mercy of God that it did not happen. They were delivered strangely and suddenly, as the Jews were. For forty years they had been, chastised, and purged and humbled for their sins; and then, and not till then, came times of safety and prosperity, honour and glory, which have lasted, thanks be to God, ever since.
And now, my dear friends, what has this to do with us? If this chapter was a lesson to our forefathers, how is it to be a lesson to us likewise?
I have always told you (as those who have really understood their Bibles in all ages have told men) that the Bible sets forth the eternal laws of God's kingdom--the laws by which God, that is, our Lord Jesus Christ, governs nations and kingdoms--and not only nations and kingdoms, but you and me, and every individual Christian man; "all these things," says St Paul, are "written for our admonition." The history of the Jews is, or may be, your history or mine, for good or for evil; as God dealt with them, so is He dealing with you and me. By their experience we must learn. By their chastisements we must be warned. So says St Paul. So have all preachers said who have understood St Paul--and so say I to you. And the lesson that we may learn from this chapter is, that we may repent and yet be punished.
I know people do not like to believe that; I know that it is much more convenient to fancy that when a man repents, and, as he says, turns over a new leaf, he need trouble himself no more about his past sins. But it is a mistake; not only is the letter and spirit of Scripture against him, but facts are against him. He may not choose to trouble himself about his past sins; but he will find that his past sins trouble him, whether he chooses or not,--and that often in a very terrible way, as they troubled those poor Jews in their day, and our forefathers after the Reformation.
"What?" some will say, "is it not expressly written in Scripture that 'when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive?' and 'all his transgressions that he hath committed they shall not be mentioned unto him,' but that 'in his righteousness which he hath done he shall live?'"
No doubt it is so written, my friends. And no doubt it is perfectly and literally true: but answer me this, when does the wicked man do that which is lawful and right? The minute after he has repented? or the day after? or even seven years after?--the minute after he is forgiven, and received freely back again as God's child, as he will be, for the sake of that precious blood which Christ poured out upon the cross? Would to God it were so, my friends. Would to God it were so easy to do right, after having been accustomed to do wrong. Would to God it were so easy to get a clean heart and a right spirit. Would to God it were so easy to break through all the old bad habits--perhaps the habits of a whole life-time. But it is in vain to expect this sudden change of character. As well may we expect a man, who has been laid low with fever, to get up and go about to his work the moment his disease takes a favourable turn.
No. After the forgiveness of sin must come the cure of sin. And that cure, like most cures, is a long and a painful process. The sin may have been some animal sin, like drunkenness; and we all know how difficult it is to cure that. Or it may have been a spiritual sin--pride, vanity, covetousness. Can any man put off these bad habits in a moment, as he puts off his coat? Those who so fancy, can know very little of human nature, and have observed their own hearts and their fellow creatures very carelessly. If you will look at facts, what you will find is this:- -that all sins and bad habits fill the soul with evil humours, just as a fever or any other severe disease fills the body; and that, as in the case of a fever, those evil humours remain after the acute disease is past, and are but too apt to break out again, to cause relapses, to torment the poor patient, perhaps to leave his character crippled and disfigured all his life--certainly to require long and often severe treatment by the heavenly physician, Christ, the purifier as well as the redeemer of our sin-sick souls. Heavy, therefore, and bitter and shameful is the burden which many a man has to bear after he has turned from self to God, from sin to holiness. He is haunted, as it were, by the ghosts of his old follies. He finds out the bitter truth of St Paul's words, that there is another law in his body warring against the law of his mind, of his conscience, and his reason; so that when he would do good, evil is present with him. The good that he would do he does not do; and the evil that he would not do he does. Till he cries with St Paul, "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" and feels that none can deliver him, save Jesus Christ our Lord.
Yes. But there is our comfort, there is our hope--Christ, the great healer, the great physician, can deliver us, and will deliver us from the remains of our old sins, the consequences of our own follies. Not, indeed, at once, or by miracle; but by slow education in new and nobler motives, in purer and more unselfish habits. And better for us, perhaps, that He should not cure us at once, lest we should fancy that sin was a light thing, which we could throw off whenever we chose; and not what it is, an inward disease, corroding and corrupting, the wages whereof are death. Therefore it is, that because Christ loves us He hates our sins, and cannot abide or endure them, will punish them, and is merciful and loving in punishing them, as long as a tincture or remnant of sin is left in us.
Let us then, if our consciences condemn us of living evil lives, turn and repent before it be too late; before our consciences are hardened; before the purer and nobler feelings which we learnt at our mothers' knees are stifled by the ways of the world; before we are hardened into bad habits, and grown frivolous, sensual, selfish and worldly. Let us repent. Let us put ourselves into the hands of Christ, the great physician, and ask Him to heal our wounded souls, and purge our corrupted souls; and leave to Him the choice of how He will do it. Let us be content to be punished and chastised. If we deserve punishment, let us bear it, and bear it like men; as we should bear the surgeon's knife, knowing that it is for our good, and that the hand which inflicts pain is the hand of one who so loves us, that He stooped to die for us on the cross. Let Him deal with us, if He see fit, as He dealt with David of old, when He forgave his sin, and yet punished it by the death of his child. Let Him do what He will by us, provided He does--what He will do--make us good men.
That is what we need to be--just, merciful, pure, faithful, loyal, useful, honourable with true honour, in the sight of God and man. That is what we need to be. That is what we shall be at last, if we put ourselves into Christ's hand, and ask Him for the clean heart and the right spirit, which is His own spirit, the spirit of all goodness. And provided we attain, at last, to that--provided we attain, at last, to the truly heroic and divine life, which is the life of virtue, it will matter little to us by what wild and weary ways, or through what painful and humiliating processes, we have arrived thither. If God has loved us, if God will receive us, then let us submit loyally and humbly to His law.
"Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth."