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Vol. 3, Sermon 18 - MAN'S GREATNESS AND GOD'S GREATNESS

By Frederick W. Robertson


      Preached June 20, 1852.

      "For thus saith the High and Lofty One that inhabiteth Eternity, whose Name is Holy. I dwell in the high and holy place--with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit."--Isaiah lvii. 15.

      The origin of this announcement seems to have been the state of contempt in which religion found itself in the days of Isaiah. One of the most profligate monarchs that ever disgraced the page of sacred history, sat upon the throne of Judah. His court was filled with men who recommended themselves chiefly by their licentiousness. The altar was forsaken. Sacrilegious hands had placed the abominations of heathenism in the Holy Place; and Piety, banished from the State, the Church, and the Royal court, was once more as she had been before, and will be again, a wanderer on the face of the earth.

      Now, however easy it may be to contemplate such a state of things at a distance, it never takes place in a man's own day and time, without suggesting painful perplexities of a twofold nature. In the first place suspicions respecting God's character; and, in the second place, misgivings as to his own duty. For a faithless heart whispers, Is it worth while to suffer for a sinking cause? Honour, preferment, grandeur, follow in the train of unscrupulous conduct. To be strict in goodness, is to be pointed at and shunned. To be no better than one's neighbours is the only way of being at peace. It seems to have been to such a state as this that Isaiah was commissioned to bring light. He vindicated God's character by saying that He is "the High and Lofty One that inhabiteth Eternity." He encouraged those who were trodden down, to perseverance, by reminding them that real dignity is something very different from present success. God dwells with him, "that is of a contrite and humble spirit" We consider

      I. That in which the greatness of God consists.
      II. That in which man's greatness consists.

      The first measurement, so to speak, which is given us of God's greatness, is in respect of Time. He inhabiteth Eternity. There are some subjects on which it would be good to dwell, if it were only for the sake of that enlargement of mind which is produced by their contemplation. And eternity is one of these, so that you cannot steadily fix the thoughts upon it without being sensible of a peculiar kind of elevation, at the same time that you are humbled by a personal feeling of utter insignificance. You have come in contact with something so immeasurable--beyond the narrow range of our common speculations--that you are exalted by the very conception of it. Now the only way we have of forming any idea of eternity is by going, step by step, up to the largest measures of time we know of, and so ascending, on and on, till we are lost in wonder. We cannot grasp eternity, but we can learn something of it by perceiving, that, rise to what portion of time we will, eternity is vaster than the vastest.

      We take up for instance, the history of our own country, and then, when we have spent months in mastering the mere outline of those great events which, in the slow course of revolving centuries, have made England what she is, her earlier ages seem so far removed from our own times that they appear to belong to a hoary and most remote antiquity. But then, when you compare those times with even the existing works of man, and when you remember that, when England was yet young in civilization, the pyramids of Egypt were already grey with 1500 years, you have got another step which impresses you with a doubled amount of vastness. Double that period, and you come to the far distant moment when the present aspect of this world was called, by creation, out of the formless void in which it was before.

      Modern science has raised us to a pinnacle of thought beyond even this. It has commanded us to think of countless ages in which that formless void existed before it put on the aspect of its present creation. Millions of years before God called the light day, and the darkness night, there was, if science speaks true, creation after creation called into existence, and buried in its own ruins upon the surface of this earth. And then, there was a time beyond even this--there was a moment when this earth itself, with all its countless creations and innumerable ages, did not exist. And, again, in that far back distance it is more than conceivable, it seems by the analogy of God's dealings next to certain, that ten thousand worlds may have been called into existence, and lasted their unnumbered ages, and then perished in succession. Compared with these stupendous figures, 6,000 years of 'our' planet sink into nothingness. The mind is lost in dwelling on such thoughts as these. When you have penetrated far, far back, by successive approximations, and still see the illimitable distance receding before you as distant as before, imagination absolutely gives way, and you feel dizzy and bewildered with new strange thoughts, that have not a name.

      But this is only one aspect of the case. It looks only to time past. The same overpowering calculations wait us when we bend our eyes on that which is to come. Time stretches back immeasurably, but it also stretches on and on for ever. Now it is by such a conception as this that the inspired prophet attempts to measure the immeasurable of God. All that eternity, magnificent as it is, never was without an Inhabitant. Eternity means nothing by itself. It merely expresses the existence of the High and Lofty One that inhabiteth it. We make a fanciful distinction between eternity and time--there is no real distinction. We are in eternity at this moment. That has begun to be with us which never began with God. Our only measure of time is by the succession of ideas. If ideas flow fast, and many sights and many thoughts pass by us, time seems lengthened. If we have the simple routine of a few engagements, the same every day, with little variety, the years roll by us so fast that we cannot mark them. It is not so with God. There is no succession of ideas with Him. Every possible idea is present with Him now. It was present with Him ten thousand years ago. God's dwelling-place is that eternity which has neither past nor future, but one vast, immeasurable present.

      There is a second measure given us of God in this verse. It is in respect of Space. He dwelleth in the High and Lofty place. He dwelleth moreover, in the most insignificant place--even the heart of man. And the idea by which the prophet would here exhibit to us the greatness of God is that of His eternal Omnipresence. It is difficult to say which conception carries with it the greatest exaltation--that of boundless space or that of unbounded time. When we pass from the tame and narrow scenery of our own country, and stand on those spots of earth in which nature puts on her wilder and more awful forms, we are conscious of something of the grandeur which belongs to the thought of space. Go where the strong foundations of the earth lie around you in their massive majesty, and mountain after mountain rears its snow to heaven in a giant chain, and then, when this bursts upon you for the first time in life, there is that peculiar feeling which we call, in common language, an enlargement of ideas. But when we are told that the sublimity of those dizzy heights is but a nameless speck in comparison with the globe of which they form the girdle; and when we pass on to think of that globe itself as a minute spot in the mighty system to which it belongs, so that our world might be annihilated, and its loss would not be felt; and when we are told that eighty millions of such systems roll in the world of space, to which our own system again is as nothing; and when we are again pressed with the recollection that beyond those furthest limits creative power is exerted immeasurably further than eye can reach, or thought can penetrate; then, brethren, the awe which comes upon the heart is only, after all, a tribute to a 'portion' of God's greatness.

      Yet we need not science to teach us this. It is the thought which oppresses very childhood--the overpowering thought of space. A child can put his head upon his hands, and think and think till it reaches in imagination some far distant barrier of the universe, and still the difficulty presents itself to his young mind, "And what is beyond that barrier?" and the only answer is "The high and lofty place." And this brethren, is the inward seal with which God has stamped Himself upon man's heart. If every other trace of Deity has been expunged by the fall, these two at least defy destruction--the thought of Eternal Time, and the thought of Immeasurable Space.

      The third measure which is given us of God respects His character. His name is Holy. The chief idea which this would convey to us is separation from evil. Brethren, there is perhaps a time drawing near when those of us who shall stand at His right hand, purified from all evil taint, shall be able to comprehend absolutely what is meant by the Holiness of God. At present, with hearts cleaving down to earth, and tossed by a thousand gusts of unholy passion, we can only form a dim conception 'relatively' of that which it implies. None but the pure can understand purity. The chief knowledge which we have of God's holiness comes from our acquaintance with unholiness. We know what impurity is--God is 'not' that. We know what injustice is--God is 'not' that. We know what restlessness, and guilt, and passion are, and deceitfulness, and pride, and waywardness--all these we know. God is none of these. And this is our chief acquaintance with His character. We know what God is 'not'. We scarcely can be rightly said to know, that is to feel, what God 'is'. And therefore, this is implied in the very name of holiness. Holiness in the Jewish sense means simply separateness. From all that is wrong, and mean, and base, our God is for ever separate.

      There is another way in which God gives to us a conception of what this holiness implies. Tell us of His justice, His truth, His loving-kindness. All these are cold abstractions. They convey no distinct idea of themselves to our hearts. What we wanted was, that these should be exhibited to us in tangible reality. And it is just this which God has done. He has exhibited all these attributes, not in the light of 'speculation', but in the light of 'facts'. He has given us His own character in all its delicacy of colouring in the history of Christ. Love, Mercy, Tenderness, Purity--these are no mere names when we see them brought out in the human actions of our Master. Holiness is only a shadow to our minds, till it receives shape and substance in the life of Christ. All this character of holiness is intelligible to us in Christ. "No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten of the Father He hath declared Him."

      There is a third light in which God's holiness is shown to us, and that is in the sternness with which He recoils from guilt. When Christ died for man, I know what God's love means; and when Jesus wept human tears over Jerusalem, I know what God's compassion means; and when the stern denunciations of Jesus rung in the Pharisees' ears, I can comprehend what God's indignation is; and when Jesus stood calm before His murderers, I have a conception of what serenity is. Brethren, revelation opens to us a scene beyond the grave, when this shall be exhibited in full operation. There will be an everlasting banishment from God's presence of that impurity on which the last efforts have been tried in vain. It will be a carrying out of this sentence by a law that cannot be reversed--"Depart from me, ye cursed." But it is quite a mistake to suppose that this is only a matter of revelation. Traces of it we have now on this side the sepulchre. Human life is full of God's recoil from sin. In the writhings of a heart which has been made to possess its own iniquities--in the dark spot which guilt leaves upon the conscience, rising up at times in a man's gayest moments, as if it will not come out--in the restlessness and the feverishness which follow the efforts of the man who has indulged habits of sin too long,--in all these there is a law repelling wickedness from the presence of the Most High,--which proclaims that God is holy.

      Brethren, it is in these that the greatness of God consists--Eternal in Time--Unlimited in Space--Unchangeable--Pure in character--His serenity and His vastness arise from His own perfections.

      We are to consider, in the second place, the greatness of man.

      1. The nature of that greatness.
      2. The persons who are great.

      Now, this is brought before us in the text in this one fact, that man has been made a habitation of the Deity--"I dwell with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit." There is in the very outset this distinction between what is great in God and what is great in man. To be independent of everything in the universe is God's glory, and to be independent is man's shame. All that God has, He has from Himself--all that man has, He has from God. And the moment man cuts himself off from God, that moment he cuts himself off from all true grandeur.

      There are two things implied in Scripture, when it is said that God dwells with man. The first is that peculiar presence which He has conferred upon the members of His church. Brethren, we presume not to define what that Presence is, and how it dwells within us--we are content to leave it as a mystery. But this we know, that something of a very peculiar and supernatural character takes place in the heart of every man upon whom the gospel has been brought to bear with power. "Know ye not," says the Apostle, "that your bodies are the temples of the Holy Ghost." And again in the Epistle to the Ephesians--"In Christ ye are builded for an habitation of God through the Spirit." There is something in these expressions which refuses to be explained away. They leave us but one conclusion, and that is--that in all those who have become Christ's by faith, God personally and locally has taken up His dwelling-place.

      There is a second meaning attached in Scripture to the expression God dwells in man. According to the first meaning, we understand it in the most plain and literal sense the words are capable of conveying. According to the second, we understand His dwelling in a figurative sense, implying this--that He gives an acquaintance with Himself to man. So, for instance, when Judas asked, "Lord, how is it, that Thou wilt manifest Thyself to us and not to the world?" Our Redeemer's reply was this--"If a man love me, he will keep my words, and my Father will love him, and We will come unto him and make Our abode with him." In the question it was asked 'how' God would manifest Himself to His servants. In the answer it was shown 'how' He would make His abode with them. And if the answer be any reply to the question at all, what follows is this--that God making His abode or dwelling in the heart is the same thing exactly as God's manifesting himself to the heart.

      Brethren, in these two things the greatness of man consists. One is to have God so dwelling in us as to impart His character to us; and the other is to have God so dwelling in us that we recognise His presence, and know that we are His and He is ours. They are two things perfectly distinct To 'have' God in us, this is salvation; to 'know' that God is in us, this is assurance.

      Lastly, we inquire as to the persons who are truly great. And these the Holy Scripture has divided into two classes--those who are humble and those who are contrite in heart. Or rather, it will be observed that it is the same class of character under different circumstances. Humbleness is the frame of mind of those who are in a state of innocence, contrition of those who are in a state of repentant guilt. Brethren, let not the expression innocence be misunderstood. Innocence in its true and highest sense never existed but once upon this earth. Innocence cannot be the religion of man now. But yet there are those who have walked with God from youth, not quenching the spirit which He gave them, and who are therefore 'comparatively' innocent beings. All they have to do is to go on, whereas the guilty man has to stop and turn back before he can go on. Repentance with them is the gentle work of every day, not the work of one distinct and miserable part of life. They are those whom the Lord calls just men which need no repentance, and of whom He says, "He that is clean needeth not save to wash his feet."

      Now they are described here as the humble in heart. Two things are required for this state of mind. One is that a man should have a true estimate of God, and the other is that he should have a true estimate of himself.

      Vain, blind man, places himself on a little corner of this planet, a speck upon a speck of the universe, and begins to form conclusions from the small fraction of God's government which he can see from thence. The astronomer looks at the laws of motion and forgets that there must have been a First Cause to commence that motion. The surgeon looks at the materialism of his own frame and forgets that matter cannot organise itself into exquisite beauty. The metaphysician buries himself in the laws of mind and forgets that there may be spiritual influences producing all those laws. And this brethren, is the unhumbled spirit of philosophy--intellectual pride. Men look at Nature, but they do not look through it up to Nature's God. There is awful ignorance of God, arising from indulged sin, which produces an unhumbled heart. God may be shut out from the soul by pride of intellect, or by pride of heart.

      Pharaoh is placed before us in Scripture almost as a type of pride. His pride arose from ignorance of God. "Who is the Lord that I should obey His voice? I know not the Lord, neither will I let Israel go." And this was not intellectual pride; it was pride in a matter of duty. Pharaoh had been immersing his whole heart in the narrow politics of Egypt. The great problem of his day was to aggrandise his own people and prevent an insurrection of the Israelites; and that small kingdom of Egypt had been his universe. He shut his heart to the voice of justice and the voice of humanity; in other words, great in the pride of human majesty, small in the sight of the High and Lofty One, he shut himself out from the knowledge of God.

      The next ingredient of humbleness is, that a man must have a right estimate of himself. There is a vast amount of self-deception on this point. We say of ourselves that which we could not bear others to say of us. A man truly humbled would take it only as his due when others treated him in the way that he says that he deserves. But my brethren, we kneel in our closets in shame for what we are, and we tell our God that the lowest place is too good for us; and then we go into the world, and if we meet with slight or disrespect, or if our opinion be not attended to, or if another be preferred before us, there is all the anguish of a galled and jealous spirit, and half the bitterness of our lives comes from this, that we are smarting from what we call the wrongs and the neglect of men. My beloved brethren, if we saw ourselves as God sees us, we should be willing to be anywhere, to be silent when others speak, to be passed by in the world's crowd, and thrust aside to make way for others. We should be willing to put others in the way of doing that which we might have got reputation for by doing ourselves. This was the temper of our Master--this is the meek and the quiet spirit, and this is the temper of the humble with whom the High and Lofty One dwells.

      The other class of those who are truly great are the contrite in spirit. At first sight it might be supposed that there must ever be a vast distinction between the innocent and the penitent. It was so that the elder son in the parable thought when he saw his brother restored to his father's favour. He was surprised and hurt. He had served his father these many years--his brother had wasted his substance in riotous living. But in this passage God makes no distinction. He places the humble consistent follower and the broken-hearted sinner on a level. He dwells with both, with Him that is contrite, 'and' with him that is humble. He sheds around them both the grandeur of His own presence, and the annals of Church history are full of exemplifications of this marvel of God's grace. By the transforming grace of Christ men, who have done the very work of Satan, have become as conspicuous in the service of heaven, as they were once conspicuous in the career of guilt.

      So indisputably has this been so, that men have drawn from such instances the perverted conclusion, that if a man is ever to be a great saint, he must first be a great sinner. God forbid brethren, that we should ever make such an inference. But this we infer for our own encouragement, that past sin does not necessarily preclude from high attainments. We must "forget the things that are behind." We must not mourn over past years of folly as if they made saintliness impossible. Deep as we may have been once in earthliness, so deep we may also be in penitence, and so high we may become in spirituality.

      We have so many years the fewer to do our work in. Well brethren, let us try to do it so much the faster. Christ can crowd the work of years into hours. He did it with the dying thief. If the man who has set out early may take his time, it certainly cannot be so with 'us' who have lost our time. If we have lost God's bright and happy presence by our wilfulness, what then? Unrelieved sadness? Nay, brethren, calmness, purity, may have gone from our heart; but 'all' is not gone yet. Just as sweetness comes from the bark of the cinnamon when it is bruised, so can the spirit of the Cross of Christ bring beauty and holiness and peace out of the bruised and broken heart. God dwells with the contrite as much as with the humble.

      And now brethren, to conclude, the first inference we collect from this subject, is the danger of coming into collision with such a God as our God. Day by day we commit sins of thought and word of which the dull eye of man takes no cognisance. He whose name is Holy cannot pass them by. We may elude the vigilance of a human enemy and place ourselves beyond his reach. God fills all space--there is not a spot in which His piercing eye is not on us, and His uplifted hand cannot find us out. Man must strike soon if he would strike at all; for opportunities pass away from him, and his victim may escape his vengeance by death. There is no passing of opportunity with God, and it is this which makes His long suffering a solemn thing. God can wait, for He has a whole eternity before Him in which He may strike. "All things are open, and naked to Him with whom we have to do."

      In the next place we are taught the heavenly character of condescension. It is not from the insignificance of man that God's dwelling with him is so strange. It is as much the glory of God to bend His attention on an atom as to uphold the universe. But the marvel is that the habitation which He has chosen for Himself is an impure one. And when He came down from His magnificence to make this world His home, still the same character of condescension was shown through all the life of Christ. Our God selected the society of the outcasts of earth, those whom none else would speak to.

      Brethren, if we would be Godlike, we must follow in the same steps. Our temptation is to do exactly the reverse. We are for ever wishing to obtain the friendship and the intimacy of those above us in the world. To win over men of influence to truth--to associate with men of talent and station, and title. This is the world-chase, and this, brethren, is too much the religious man's chase. But if you look simply to the question of resemblance to God, then the man who makes it a habit to select that one in life to do good to, and that one in a room to speak with, whom others pass by because there is nothing either of intellect, or power, or name, to recommend him, but only humbleness, 'that' man has stamped upon his heart more of heavenly similitude by condescension, than the man who has made it his business to win this world's great ones, even for the sake of truth.

      Lastly, we learn the guilt of two things of which this world is full--vanity and pride. There is a distinction between these two. But the distinction consists in this, that the vain man looks for the admiration of others--the proud man requires nothing but his own. Now, it is this distinction which makes vanity despicable to us all. We can easily find out the vain man--we soon discover what it is he wants to be observed, whether it be a gift of person, or a gift of mind, or a gift of character. If he be vain of his person, his attitudes will tell the tale. If he be vain of his judgment, or his memory, or his honesty, he cannot help an unnecessary parade. The world finds him out, and this is why vanity is ever looked on with contempt. So soon as we let men see that we are suppliants for their admiration, we are at their mercy. We have given them the privilege of feeling that they are above us. We have invited them to spurn us. And therefore vanity is but a thing for scorn. But it is very different with pride. No man can look down on him that is proud, for he has asked no man for anything. They are forced to feel respect for pride, because it is thoroughly independent of them. It wraps itself up in the consequence of its own excellences, and scorns to care whether others take note of them or not.

      It is just here that the danger lies. We have exalted a sin into a virtue. No man will acknowledge that he is vain, but almost any man will acknowledge that he is proud. But tried by the balance of the sanctuary, there is little to choose between the two. If a man look for greatness out of God, it matters little whether he seek it in his own applause, or in the applause of others. The 'proud' Pharisee, who trusted in himself that he was righteous, was condemned by Christ as severely, and even more, than the 'vain' Jews who "could not believe because they sought honour from one another, and not that honour which cometh from God only." It may be a more dazzling, and a more splendid sin to be proud. It is not less hateful in God's sight. Let us speak God's word to our own unquiet, swelling, burning hearts. Pride may disguise itself as it will in its own majesty, but in the presence of the High and Lofty One, it is but littleness after all.

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