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Discipline and Other Sermons, 6 - FALSE CIVILIZATION

By Charles Kingsley


      JEREMIAH xxxv. 19.

      Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; Jonadab the son of Rechab shall not want a man to stand before me for ever.

      Let us think a while this morning what this text has to do with us; and why this strange story of the Rechabites is written for our instruction, in the pages of Holy Scripture.

      Let us take the story as it stands, and search the Scriptures simply for it. For the Bible will surely tell its own story best, and teach its own lesson best.

      These Rechabites, who were they? Or, indeed we may ask--Who are they? For they are said to exist still.

      They were not Israelites, but wild Arabs, a branch of the Kenite tribe, which claimed--at least its chiefs--to be descended from Abraham, by his wife Keturah. They joined the Israelites, and wandered with them into the land of Canaan.

      But they never settled down, as the Israelites did, into farmers and townsfolk. They never became what we call civilized: though they had a civilization of their own, which stood them in good stead, and kept them--and keeps them, it would seem, to this day,--strong and prosperous, while great cities and mighty nations have been destroyed round about them. They kept their old simple Arab customs, living in their great black camels' hair tents, feeding their flocks and herds, as they wandered from forest to forest and lawn to lawn, living on the milk of the flock, and it would seem, on locusts and wild honey, as did John the Baptist after them. They had (as many Arab tribes have still) neither corn, seed-field, nor vineyard. Wild men they were in their ways, yet living a simple wholesome life; till in the days of Ahab and Jehu there arose among them a chief called Jonadab the son of Rechab, of the house of Hammath. Why he was called the son of Rechab is not clearly known. 'The son of the rider,' or 'the son of the chariot,' seems to be the most probable meaning of the name. So that these Rechabites, at least, had horses--as many Arab tribes have now--and whether they rode them, or used them to draw their goods about in carts, like many other wild tribes, they seem to have gained from Jonadab the name of Rechabim, the sons of Rechab, the sons of the rider, or the sons of the chariot.

      Of Jonadab the son of Rechab, you heard three Sundays since, in that noble passage of 2 Kings x. where Jehu, returning from the slaughter of the idolatrous kings, and going to slay the priests of Baal, meets Jonadab and asks him, Is thy heart right--that is, sound in the worship of God, and determined to put down idolatry--as my heart is with thy heart? We hear of him and his tribe no more till the days of Jeremiah, 250 years after, in the story from which my text is taken. What Jonadab's reasons may have been for commanding his tribe neither to settle in towns, nor till the ground, it is not difficult to guess. He may have dreaded lest his people, by settling in the towns, should learn the idolatry of the Israelites. He may have dreaded, likewise, lest they should give way to that same luxury and profligacy in which the Israelites indulged--and especially lest they should be demoralized by that drunkenness of which the prophets speak, as one of the crying sins of that age. He may have feared, too, lest their settling down as landholders or townsmen would cause them to be absorbed and lost among the nation of the Israelites, and probably involved in their ruin. Be that as it may, he laid his command upon his tribe, and his command was obeyed.

      Of the after-history of these simple God-fearing folk we know very little. But what we do know is well worth remembering. They were, it seems, carried away captive to Babylon with the rest of the Jews; and with them they came back to Jerusalem. Meanwhile, they had intermarried with the priests of the tribe of Levi; and they assisted at the worship and sacrifices,--'standing before the Lord' (as Jeremiah had foretold) 'in the temple,' but living (as some say) outside the walls in their tents. And it is worth remembering, that we have one psalm in the Bible, which was probably written either by one of these Rechabites, or by Jeremiah for them to sing, and that a psalm which you all know well, the old man's psalm, as it has well been called--the 71st Psalm, which is read in the visitation of the sick; which says, 'O God, thou hast taught me from my youth: and hitherto have I declared thy wondrous works. Now also when I am old and grey-headed, O God, forsake me not; until I have shewed thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to every one that is to come.'

      It was, moreover, a Rechabite priest, we are told--'one of the sons of the Rechabim spoken of by Jeremiah the prophet'--who when the Jews were stoning St. James the Just, one of the twelve apostles, cried out against their wickedness.

      What befell the Rechabites when Jerusalem was destroyed, we know not: but they seem to have returned to their old life, and wandered away into the far east; for in the twelfth century, more than one thousand years after, a Jewish traveller met with them 100,000 strong under a Jewish prince of the house of David; still abstaining from wine and flesh, and paying tithes to teachers who studied the law, and wept for the fall of Jerusalem. And even yet they are said to endure and prosper. For in our own time, a traveller met the Rechabites once more in the heart of Arabia, still living in their tents, still calling themselves the sons of Jonadab. With one of them, Mousa (i.e. Moses) by name, he talked, and Mousa said to him, 'Come, and I will show you who we are;' and from an Arabic bible he read the words of my text, and said, 'You will find us 60,000 in number still. See, the words of the prophet have been fulfilled--"Jonadab the son of Rechab shall not want a man to stand before me for ever."'

      What lesson shall we learn from this story--so strange, and yet so beautiful? What lesson need we learn, save that which the Holy Scripture itself bids us learn? The blessing which comes upon reverence for our forefathers, and above all for God, our Father in Heaven.

      Reverence for our forefathers. These are days in which we are too apt to sneer at those who have gone before us; to look back on our forefathers as very ignorant, prejudiced, old-fashioned people, whose opinions have been all set aside by the progress of knowledge.

      Be sure that in this temper of mind lies a sin and a snare. If we wish to keep up true independence and true self-respect in ourselves and our children, we should be careful to keep up respect for our forefathers. A shallow, sneering generation, which laughs at those who have gone before it, is ripe for disaster and slavery. We are not bound, of course--as those old Rechabites considered themselves bound--to do in everything exactly what our forefathers did. For we are not under the law, but under grace; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty--liberty to change, improve, and develop as the world grows older, and (we may hope) wiser. But we are bound to do, not exactly what our forefathers did, but what we may reasonably suppose that they would have done, had they lived now, and were they in our places. We are to obey them, not in the letter, but in the spirit.

      And whenever, in the prayer for the Church militant, we commemorate the faithful dead, and thank God for all his servants departed this life in his faith and fear, we should remember with honest pride that we are thanking God for our own mothers and fathers, and for those that went before them; ay, for every honest God-fearing man and woman, high or low, who ever did their duty by God and their neighbours, and left, when they died, a spot of this land somewhat better than they found it.

      And for God; the Father of all fathers; our Father in heaven--Oh, my friends, God grant that it may never be said to any of us, Behold the words of Jonadab the son of Rechab, which he commanded his children, are performed: but ye have not hearkened unto me. I have sent also unto you, saith God, not merely my servants the prophets, but my only-begotten, Jesus Christ your Lord, saying, 'Return you now every man from his evil way, and amend your doings, and go not after other gods to serve them, and ye shall dwell in the land which I have given to you and to your fathers. But ye have not inclined your ear, nor hearkened unto me.'

      God grant that that may never be said to any of us. And yet it is impossible to deny--impossible to shut our eyes to the plain fact-- that Englishmen now-a-days are more and more forgetting that there are any commandments of God whatsoever; any everlasting laws laid down by their Heavenly Father, which, if they break, will avenge themselves by our utter ruin. We do not go after other gods, it is true, in the sense of worshipping idols. But there is another god, which we go after more and more; and that is money; gain; our interest (as we call it):- not knowing that the only true interest of any man is to fear God and keep his commandments. We hold more and more that a man can serve God and mammon; that a man must of course be religious, and belong to some special sect, or party, or denomination, and stand up for that fiercely enough: but we do not hold that there are commandments of God which say for ever to the sinner, 'Do this and thou shalt live;' 'Do this or thou shalt die.'

      We hold that because we are not under the law, but under grace, there is no condemnation for sin--at least for the special sort of sin which happens to be in fashion, which is now-a-days the sin of making money at all risks. We hold that there is one law of morality for the kingdom of heaven, and another for the kingdom of mammon. Therefore we hold, more and more, that when money is in question anything and everything is fair. There are--we have reason to know it just now but too well--thousands who will sell their honour, their honesty, yea, their own souls, for a few paltry pounds, and think no shame. And if any one says, with Jeremiah the prophet, 'These are poor, they know not the way of the Lord, nor the judgment of their God. I will get me to the great men, for they have known the way of the Lord, and the judgment of their God:'--then will he find, as Jeremiah did, that too many of these great and wealthy worshippers of mammon have utterly broken the yoke, and burst the bonds, of all moral law of right and wrong: heaping up vast fortunes amid the ruin of those who have trusted them, and the tears of the widow and the orphan, by means now glossed over by fine new words, but called in plain honest old English by a very ugly name.

      How many there are in England now, my friends, who would laugh in their hearts at those worthy Rechabites, and hold them to be ignorant, old-fashioned, bigoted people, for keeping up their poor, simple, temperate life, wandering to and fro with their tents and cattle, instead of dwelling in great cities, and making money, and becoming what is now-a-days called civilized, in luxury and covetousness. Surely according to the wisdom of this world, the Rechabites were foolish enough. But it is the wisdom of this world itself--not simplicity and loyalty like theirs--which is foolishness with God.

      My friends, let us all take warning, each man for himself. When a nation corrupts itself--as we seem inclined to do now, by luxury and covetousness, selfishness and self-will, forgetting more and more loyalty and order, honesty and high principle--then some wholesome, but severe judgment of God, is sure to come upon that nation: a day in which all faces shall gather blackness: a day of gloominess and thick darkness, like the morning spread upon the mountains.

      For the eternal laws of God's providence are still at work, though we choose to forget them; and the Judge who administers them is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever, even Jesus Christ the Lord, the everlasting Rock, on which all morality and all society is founded. Whosoever shall fall on that Rock in repentance and humility, confessing, bewailing, and forsaking his worldliness and sinfulness, he shall indeed be broken: but of him it is written, 'The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.' And he shall find that Rock, even Christ, a safe standing-ground amid the slippery mire of this world's temptations, and the storms and floods of trouble which are coming-- it may be in our children's days--it may be in our own.

      But he who hardens his heart: he who says proudly, 'We are they that ought to speak; who is Lord over us?'--he who says carelessly, 'Soul, take thine ease; thou hast much goods laid up for many years'--he who halts between two opinions, and believes to the last that he can serve both God and mammon--he, especially, who fancies that falsehood, injustice, covetousness, and neglect of his fellow-men, can properly be his interest, or help his interest in any wise--of all such it is written, 'On whomsoever that Rock'--even the eternal laws of Christ the Judge--'On whomsoever that Rock shall fall, it shall grind him to powder.'

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