2 Kings xviii. 9-12. And it came to pass in the fourth year of King Hezekiah, which was the seventh year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, that Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, came up against Samaria, and besieged it. And at the end of three years they took it: even in the sixth year of Hezekiah, that is the ninth year of Hoshea king of Israel, Samaria was taken. And the king of Assyria did carry away Israel unto Assyria, and put them in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozon, and in the cities of the Medes: because they obeyed not the voice of the Lord their God, but transgressed his covenant, and all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded, and would not hear them, nor do them.
These are very simple words: but they are awful words enough. Awful enough to the poor creatures of whom they speak. You here, most of you, can hardly guess all that these words mean. You may thank God that you do not. That you do not know the horrors of war, and the misery of a conquered country, in old times.
To lose all they had ever earned; all that makes life worth having. To have their homes burnt over their heads, their crops carried off their fields. To see their women dishonoured, their old men and children murdered--to be insulted, beaten, and tortured to make them tell where their money was hidden; and after they and theirs had suffered every unspeakable shame and misery from the hands of brutal enemies, to be stripped, bound, and marched away, for hundreds of miles across the deserts, into the cold and dreary mountains of the north of Assyria, there to live and die as slaves, and never again to see their native land. And such a land as it was, and is still: or rather might be still, if there were men in it worthy the name of men. For of all countries in the world, that land of Israel is one of the most rich and beautiful. The climate and the soil there is such, that two crops can often be grown in the year, of almost any kind which man may need; there are rich valleys well watered, where not only wheat and every grain-crop, but the olive, and the fig, and the vine, flourish in perfection; rich park-like uplands, where sheep and cattle without number may find pasture; great forests of timber, fit for every use; and all kept cool and fruitful, even beneath that burning eastern sun, by the clear streams which flow for ever down from Hermon. the great snow-mountain ten thousand feet high, which overlooks that pleasant land. There is hardly, travellers say, a lovelier or richer country upon earth, than the land of Israel, from Hebron on the south to Hermon on the north; nor a country which might have been stronger, and safer, and more prosperous, if these Jews had been but wise.
It is, so to speak, one great castle, rising most of it two thousand feet high, and walled in by God in a way as is seen hardly in any other land. On the west lies the sea; on the south and on the east vast wildernesses of sandy desert; and on the north, the mighty mountains of Hermon and Lebanon, which no invading army could have crossed, if the Jews had had courage to keep them out. And that, the noble and divine Law of Moses would have given them. It would have made them one free, brave, God-fearing people, at unity with itself; and the promise of Moses would have been fulfilled--that one of them should chase a thousand, and no man or nation be able to stand against them. In David's time, and in Solomon's time also, that promise came true; and that small people of the Jews became a very powerful nation, respected and feared by all the kingdoms round.
But when they fell into idolatry, and forsook the true God, and his law: all was changed. Idolatry brought sin, and sin brought bad passions, hatred, division, weakness, ruin.
The first beginning was, the breaking up of the nation into two;-- the kingdom of Judah to the south, the kingdom of Israel to the north. And with that division came envy, spite, quarrels; wars between Israel and Judah, which were but madness. For what could come of those two brother-nations fighting against each other, but that both should grow weaker and weaker, and so fall a prey to some third nation stronger than them both? The ruin of the kingdom of Israel, of which the text tells us, arose out of some unnatural quarrel of this kind. Pekah, the king of Israel, had made friends with the heathen king of Syria, and got him to join in making war on Judah: and a fearful war it was; for the Israelites, according to one account, killed in that war a hundred and twenty thousand of the Jews, men of their own blood and language, all Abraham's descendants as well as they. On which, Ahaz, king of Judah, not to be behind- hand in folly, sent to the heathen king of Assyria to help him, just as the king of Israel had sent to the king of Damascus. He had better have been dead than to have done that. For those terrible Assyrians, who had set their hearts on conquering the whole east, were standing by, watching all the little kingdoms round tearing themselves to pieces by foolish wars, till they were utterly weak, and the time was ripe for the Assyrians to pounce upon them. The king of Assyria came. He swept away all the heathen people of Damascus, and killed their king. But he did not stop there. In a very few years, he came on into the land of Israel, besieged Samaria for three years, and took it, and carried off the whole of the inhabitants of the country; and there was an end of that miserable kingdom of Israel, which had been sinking lower and lower ever since the days of Jeroboam. This was the natural outcome of all their sin and folly, of which we have been reading for the last few Sundays.
Elijah's warnings had been in vain, and Elisha's warnings also. They liked, at heart, Ahab's and Jezebel's idolatries better than they did the worship of the true God. And why? Because, if they worshipped God, and kept his laws, they must needs have been more or less good men, upright, just, merciful, cleanly and chaste livers: while, on the other hand, they might worship their idols, and nevertheless be as bad as they chose. Indeed, the very idol-feasts and sacrifices were mixed up with all sorts of filthy sin, drunkenness and profligacy; so that it is a shame even to speak of the things which went on, especially at those sacrifices to Ashtaroth, the queen of heaven, of which they were so fond. They choose the worse part, and refused the better; and they were filled with the fruit of their own devices, as every unrepenting sinner surely will be.
But did the Jews of Judea and their king escape, who had thus brought the king of Assyria down to murder their own countrymen, and lay that fair land waste? Not they. A very few years more, the Assyrians were back again, and overran Judea itself, laying the country waste with fire and sword, till nothing was left to them, but the mere city of Jerusalem. And so they, too, were filled with the fruit of their own devices. In their madness they had destroyed their brethren, the people of Israel, who ought to have been a safeguard for them to the north; now there was nothing and no man to prevent the Assyrians, or any other invaders, from pouring right down into their land. Truly says Solomon, 'He that diggeth a pit, shall fall into it, and he who breaketh a hedge, a serpent shall bite him.' From that day, Judah became weaker and weaker, standing all alone. Good king Hezekiah, good king Josiah, could only stave off her ruin for a few years; a little while longer, and her cup was full too, and the Babylonians came and swept the Jews away into captivity, as the Assyrians had swept away Israel, and that fair land lay desolate for many a year.
The king of Assyria, we read, after he had carried away the people of Israel, brought heathens from Assyria, and settled them in the Holy Land, instead of the Israelites. But the Lord sent lions among them, we read; the land, I suppose, lying waste, the wild beasts increased, and became very dangerous: so these poor ignorant settlers sent to the king of Assyria, to beg for a Jewish priest, to teach them, as they said, the manner of the god of that land, that they might worship him, and not be terrified by the lions any more. It was a simple, confused notion of theirs: but it brought a blessing with it; for the king of Assyria sent them one of the Jewish priests who had been carried away from Samaria; and he came and lived at Beth-el, and taught them to fear the Lord. So these poor people got some confused notion of the one true God: but they mixed it up sadly with their old heathen idolatry, and made gods of their own, and some of them even burnt their children in the fire, to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim, from which town they had come. And so they went on for several hundred years, marrying with the remnant of the Israelites who were left behind, and worshipping idols and the true God at the same time. Now these people are the Samaritans, of whom you read so often in the New Testament. The Jews, when they came back, hated and despised the Samaritans, and would not speak to them, eat with them, trade with them, because they were only half-blooded Jews, and did not observe Moses' law rightly; and so they were left to themselves: but as time went on, they seemed to have got rid of their old idolatry, and built themselves a temple on Mount Gerizim, by Samaria, in Jacob's old haunts, by Jacob's well, and there worshipped they knew not what. But still they did their best. And their reward came at last.
Many a hundred years had passed away. The proud Pharisees of Jerusalem were still calling them dogs and infidels; when there came to that half-heathen city of Samaria such a one as never came there before or since; and yet had been very near that place, and those poor Samaritans, for a thousand years.
And being wearied with his journey, he sat down upon the edge of Jacob's well, by Joseph's tomb. The well is still there, choked with rubbish to this very day; and Joseph's tomb by it, all in ruins, among broad fields of corn. And on the edge of that well he sat. Along the very road which was before him, Jeroboam, and Ahab, and many a wicked king of Israel, had gone in old times, travelling between Shechem and Samaria: along that road the terrible Assyrians had marched back to their own land, leading strings of weeping prisoners out of their pleasant native land, to slavery and misery in the far North. He knew it all; and doubt not that he thought over it all, as never man thought on earth. Doubt not that his heart yearned over these poor ignorant Samaritans, and over the sinful woman who came to draw water at the well. After all, half- heathens as they were, Jacob's blood was in their veins; and if not, were they not still human beings? They were worshipping they knew not what: but still they were worshipping the best which they knew.
'Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. The woman saith unto him, I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things. Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he. . . . So when the Samaritans were come unto him, they besought him that he would tarry with them: and he abode there two days. And many more believed because of his own word; and said unto the woman, Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world.'
Oh, my friends, despise no man; for Christ despises none. He is no respecter of persons: but in every nation, he that feareth God and worketh righteousness is accepted with him. Despise no man; for by so doing you deny the Father, who has made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on the earth, and has appointed them their times, and the bounds of their habitation; if haply they may feel after him, and find him: though he be not far from any of us; for in him we live and move and have our being, and are the offspring of God. For hundreds of years those poor ignorant Samaritans had felt after him; in that foreign land to which the cruel Assyrian conqueror had banished them: but it was God who had appointed them their habitation there, and their time also; and, in due time, they found God: for he came to them, and found them, and spoke with them face to face.
Better to have been one of those ignorant Samaritans, than to have been King Ahab, or King Hoshea, in all their glory, with all their proud Jewish blood. Better to have been one of those ignorant Samaritans than one of those conceited Pharisees at Jerusalem, who, while they were priding themselves on being Abraham's children, and keeping Moses' law, ended by crucifying him who made Abraham, and Moses, and his law, and them themselves. Better to be the poorest negro slave, if, in the midst of his ignorance and misery and shame, he believes in Christ, and works righteousness, than the cleverest and proudest and freest Englishman, if, in the midst of his great light, he works the works of darkness, and, while he calls himself a child of God, lives the sinful life, on which God's curse lies for ever.
So you who have many advantages, take warning by the fate of those foolish Jews, who knew a great deal, and yet did not do it, and so came to shame and ruin. And you who have few advantages, take comfort by those poor Samaritans, who knew a very little, and yet made the best of it, and so at last saw a great light, after sitting in darkness for so long. Schools, books, church-going, ordinances of all kinds, they are good. If you can get them, use them, and thank God for them: but remember, God does not ask for learning, but for goodness and holiness: he does not ask for knowledge, but for a right life. And do not fancy, that because your children have a good education now, and you had none, that God does not love you as well as he loves them. His mercy is over all his works; and the promises are to you as well as to your children. There is many a poor soul who never read a book in her life, who is nearer God than many a great scholar, and fine preacher, and learned divine. All Christ asks of you is, to receive him when he comes to you; and to love, and thank, and admire him, and try to be like him, because he will make you like him: while for the rest to whom little is given, of him shall little be required; and to him who uses what he has, be it little or much, more shall be given, and he shall have abundance. For God is no respecter of persons; but in every nation, he that feareth God, and worketh righteousness, is accepted by him.