The full meaning of this text is, that every sin which a man commits is certain, sooner or later, to come home to him with fearful interest.
Moses gave this warning to two tribes of the Israelites,--to the Reubenites and Gadites, who had promised to go over Jordan, and help their countrymen in war against the heathen, on condition of being allowed to return and settle on the east bank of Jordan, where they then were; but if they broke their promise, and returned before the end of the war, they were to be certain that their sin would find them out; that God would avenge their falsehood on them in some way in their lifetime: in their lifetime, I say, for there is no mention made in this chapter, or in any part of the story, of heaven or hell, or any world to come. And the text has been always taken as a fair warning to all generations of men, that their sin also, even in their lifetimes, will be visited upon them.
Now, it is strange, at first sight, that these texts, which warn men that their sins will be punished in this life, are just the most unpleasant texts in the whole Bible; that men shrink from them more, and shut their eyes to them more than they do to those texts which threaten them with hell-fire and everlasting death. Strange!--that men should be more afraid of being punished in this life for a few years than in the life to come for ever and ever;--and yet not strange if we consider; for to worldly and sinful souls, that life after death and the flames of hell seem quite distant and dim-- things of which they know little and believe less, while this world they DO know, they are quite certain that its good things are pleasant and its bad things unpleasant, and they are thoroughly afraid of losing THEM. Their hearts are where their treasure is, in this world; and a punishment which deprives them of this world's good things hits them home: but their treasure is NOT in heaven, and, therefore, about losing heaven they are by no means so much concerned. And thus they can face the dreadful news that "the wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the people that forget God;" while, as for the news that the wicked shall be recompensed on the earth, that their sins will surely find them out in this life, they cannot face that--they shut their ears to it,--they try to persuade themselves that sin will PAY them HERE, at all events; and as for hereafter, they shall get off somehow,--they neither know nor care much how.
Yet God's truth remains, and God's truth must be heard; and those who love this world so well must be told, whether they like or not, that every sin which they commit, every mean, every selfish, every foul deed, loses them so much enjoyment in this very present world of which they are so mighty fond. That is God's truth; and I will prove it true from common sense, from Holy Scripture, and FROM THE WITNESS of men's own hearts.
Take common sense. Does not common sense tell us that if God made this world, and governs it by righteous and God-like laws, this must be a world in which evil-doing cannot thrive? God made the world better than that, surely! He would be a bad law-giver who made such laws, that it was as well to break them as to keep them. You would call them bad laws, surely! No, God made the world, and not the devil; and the world works by God's laws, and not the devil's; and it inclines towards good, and not towards evil; and he who sins, even in the least, breaks God's laws, acts contrary to the rule and constitution of the world, and will surely find that God's laws will go on in spite of him, and grind him to powder, if he by sinning gets in the way of them. God has no need to go out of His way to punish our evil deeds. Let them alone, and they will punish themselves. Is it not so in every thing? If a tradesman trades badly, or a farmer farms badly, there is no need of lawyers to punish him; he will punish himself. Every mistake he makes will take money out of his pocket; every time he offends against the established rules of trade or agriculture, which are God's laws, he injures himself; and so, be sure, it is in the world at large,--in the world in which men and the souls of men live, and move, and have their being.
Next, to speak of Scripture. I might quote texts innumerable to prove that what I say Scripture says also. Consider but this one thing,--that there is a whole book in the Bible written to prove this one thing,--that our good and bad deeds are repaid us with interest in this life--the Proverbs of Solomon I mean--in which there is little or no mention of heaven or hell, or any world to come. It is all one noble, and awful, and yet cheering sermon on that one text, "The righteous shall be recompensed in the earth, much more the wicked and the sinner,"--put in a thousand different lights; brought home to us a thousand different roads, comes the same everlasting doom,--"Vain man, who thinkest that thou canst live in God's world and yet despise His will, know that, in every smiling, comfortable sin, thou art hatching an adder to sting thee in the days of old age, to poison thy cup of sinful joy, even when it is at thy lips; to haunt thy restless thoughts, and dog thee day and night; to rise up before thee, in the silent, sleepless hours of night, like an angry ghost! An awful foretaste of the doom that is to come; and yet a merciful foretaste, if thou wilt be but taught by the disappointment, the unsatisfied craving, the gnawing shame of a guilty conscience, to see the heinousness of sin, and would turn before it be too late."
What, my friends,--what will you make of such texts as this, "That he who soweth to the flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption?" Do you not see that comes true far too often? Can it help ALWAYS coming true, seeing that God's apostle spoke it? What will you make of this, too, "That the wicked is snared by the working of his own hands;"--"That EVIL"--the evil which we do of its own self--"shall slay the wicked?" What says the whole noble 37th Psalm of David, but that same awful truth of God, that sin is its own punishment?
Why should I go on quoting texts? Look for yourselves, you who fancy that it is only on the other side of the grave that God will trouble Himself about you and your meanness, your profligacy, your falsehood. Look for yourselves in the book of God, and see if there be any writer there,--lawgiver, prophet, psalmist, apostle, up to Christ the Lord Himself,--who does not warn men again and again, that here, on earth, their sins will find them out. Our Saviour, indeed, when on earth, said less about this subject than any of the prophets before Him, or the apostles after Him, and for the best of reasons. The Jews had got rooted in their minds a superstitious notion, that all disease, all sorrow, was the punishment in each case of some particular sin; and thus, instead of looking with pity and loving awe upon the sick and the afflicted, they were accustomed, too often, to turn from them as sinners, smitten of God, bearing in their distress the token of His anger. The blessed One,-- He who came to heal the sick and save the lost,--reproved that error more than once. When the disciples fancied a certain poor man's blindness to be a judgment from God, "Neither did he sin," said the Lord, "nor his parents, but that the glory of God might be made manifest in him." And yet, on the other hand, when He healed a certain man of an old infirmity at the pool of Bethesda, what were His words to him? "Go thy way, sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee;"--a clear and weighty warning that all his long misery of eight-and-thirty years had been the punishment of some sin of his, and that the sin repeated would bring on him a still severer judgment.
What, again, does the apostle mean, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, when he tells us how God scourges every son whom he receives, and talks of His chastisements, whereof all are partakers. Why do we need chastising if we have nothing which needs mending? And though the innocent MAY sometimes be afflicted to make them strong as well as innocent, and the holy chastened to make them humble as well as holy, yet if the good cannot escape their share of affliction, how will the bad get off? "If the righteous scarcely be saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?" But what use in arguing when you know that my words are true? You KNOW that your sins will find you out. Look boldly and honestly into your own hearts. Look through the history of your past lives, and confess to God, at least, that the far greater number of your sorrows have been your own fault; that there is hardly a day's misery which you ever endured in your life of which you might not say, 'If I had listened to the voice of God in my conscience--if I had earnestly considered what my DUTY was--if I had prayed to God to determine my judgment right, I should have been spared this sorrow now?' Am I not right? Those who know most of God and their own souls will agree most with me; those who know little about God and their own souls will agree but hardly with me, for they provoke God's chastisements, and writhe under them for the time, and then go and do the same wrong again, as the wild beast will turn and bite the stone thrown at him without having the sense to see why it was thrown.
Think, again, of your past lives, and answer in God's sight, how many wrong things have you ever done which have SUCCEEDED, that is, how many sins which you would not be right glad were undone if you could but put back the wheels of Time? They may have succeeded OUTWARDLY; meanness will succeed so--lies--oppression--theft-- adultery--drunkenness--godlessness--they are all pleasant enough while they last, I suppose; and a man may reap what he calls substantial benefits from them in money, and suchlike, and keep that safe enough; but has his sin succeeded? Has it not FOUND HIM OUT?-- found him out never to lose him again? Is he the happier for it? Does he feel freer for it? Does he respect himself the more for it?--No! And even though he may prosper now, yet does there not run though all his selfish pleasure a certain fearful looking forward to a fiery judgment to which he would gladly shut his eyes, but cannot?
Cunning, fair-spoken oppressor of the poor, has not thy sin found thee out? Then be sure it will. In the shame of thine own heart it will find thee out;--in the curses of the poor it will find thee out;--in a friendless, restless, hopeless death-bed, thy covetousness and thy cruelty will glare before thee in their true colours, and thy sin will find thee out!
Profligate woman, who art now casting away thy honest name, thy self-respect, thy womanhood, thy baptism-vows, that thou mayest enjoy the foul pleasures of sin for a season, has not thy sin found thee out? Then be sure it will hereafter, when thou hast become disgusted at thyself and thine own infamy,--and youth, and health, and friends, are gone, and a shameful and despised old age creeps over thee, and death stalks nearer and nearer, and God vanishes further and further off, then thy sin will find thee out!
Foolish, improvident young man, who art wasting the noble strength of youth, and manly spirits which God has given thee on sin and folly, throwing away thine honest earnings in cards and drunkenness, instead of laying them by against a time of need--has not thy sin found thee out? Then be sure it will some day, when thou hast to bring home thy bride to a cheerless, unfurnished house, and there to live from hand to mouth,--without money to provide for her sickness,--without money to give her the means of keeping things neat and comfortable when she is well,--without a farthing laid by against distress, and illness, and old age:--THEN your sin will find you out: then, perhaps, my text,--my words--may come across you as you sigh in vain in your comfortless home, in your impoverished old age, for the money which you wasted in your youth! My friends, my friends, for your own sakes consider, and mend ere that day come, as else it surely will!
And, lastly, you who, without running into any especial sins, as those which the world calls sins, still live careless about religion, without loyalty to Christ the Lord, without any honest attempt, or even wish, to serve the God above you, or to rejoice in remembering that you are His children, working for Him and under Him,--be sure your sin will find you out. When affliction, or sickness, or disappointment come, as come they will, if God has not cast you off;--when the dark day dawns, and your fool's paradise of worldly prosperity is cut away from under your feet, then you will find out your folly--you will find that you have insulted the only Friend who can bring you out of affliction--cast off the only comfort which can strengthen you to bear affliction--forgotten the only knowledge which will enable you to be the wiser for affliction. Then, I say, the sin of your godlessness will find you out; if you do not intend to fall, soured and sickened merely by God's chastisements, either into stupid despair or peevish discontent, you will have to go back, to go back to God and cry, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before Thee, and am no more worthy to be called Thy son."
Go back at once before it be too late. Find out your sins and mend them--before they find you out, and break your hearts.