"They return, but not to the Most High."-Hos. vii. 16.
THE Most High. The High and Lofty One, That inhabiteth eternity, whose Name is Holy. The King Eternal, Immortal, Invisible, the Only Wise God. The Blessed and Only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords: Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto: Whom no man hath seen, nor can see. Great and marvellous are Thy works, Lord God Almighty: just and true are Thy ways, Thou King of saints. Who shall not fear Thee, O Lord, and glorify Thy Name? For Thou only art Holy. God is a Spirit: Infinite, Eternal, and Unchangeable in His Being, Wisdom, Power, Holiness, Justice, Goodness and Truth. Lo! these are parts of His ways: but how little a portion is heard of Him! But the thunder of His power who can understand? The Most High!
Now the greatness of God is the true index and measure of the greatness of man. God made man in His own image. God made man for Himself, and not for any end short of Himself. "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever." "In Thy presence is fulness of joy: at Thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore." "Then will I go unto the altar of God, unto God my exceeding joy." "Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord." The higher, then, that God is, the higher is our everlasting destination to be. The more blessed God is, the more blessed are we purposed and predestinated to be. The more surpassing all imagination of Prophets and Psalmists and Apostles the Divine Nature is,-the more true it is that eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the heart of man what God hath prepared for them who are for ever to be made partakers of the Divine Nature. "I in them, and Thou in me. And the glory which Thou gavest Me, I have given them: that the Love wherewith Thou hast loved Me may be in them: and I in them." And then, in order to hedge up, and secure, all these to their everlasting exaltation and blessedness, God has made it the supreme law of all His laws to us, that all men shall, above all things else, seek their own chief end. And He has made it the sin of sins, the one unpardonable sin, in any man, to come short of his chief end-which is the full enjoying of God to all eternity. And the prophet Hosea has all that in his mind, and in his heart, when he offers that great evangelical invitation and encouragement, "Come and let us return unto the Lord." And he has all that in his mind and in his heart also, when he utters the sore lamentation and bitter accusation of the text, "They return, but not to the Most High."
Now it is necessary to know, and ever to keep in mind, that prayer is the all-comprehending name that is given to every step in our return to God. True prayer, the richest and the ripest prayer, the most acceptable and the most prevailing prayer, embraces many elements: it is made up of many operations of the mind, and many motions of the heart. To begin to come to ourselves,-however far off we may then discover ourselves to be,-to begin to think about ourselves, is already to begin to pray. To begin to feel fear, or shame, or remorse, or a desire after better things, is to begin to pray. To say within ourselves, "I will arise and go to my Father,"-that is to begin to pray. To see what we are, and to desire to turn from what we are-that also is to pray. In short, every such thought about ourselves, and about God, and about sin and its wages, and about salvation, its price and its preciousness; every foreboding thought about death and judgment and heaven and hell; every reflection about the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ; and every wish of our hearts that we were more like Jesus Christ: all our reading of the Word, all our meditation reflection, contemplation, prostration and adoration; all faith, all hope, all love; all that, and all of that same kind,-it all comes, with the most perfect truth and propriety, under the all-embracing name of "prayer"; it all enters into the all-absorbing life of prayer.
Prayer is the soul's sincere desire, Uttered or unexpressed: The motion of a hidden fire That trembles in the breast.
Prayer is the burden of a sigh, The falling of a tear, The upward glancing of an eye When none but God is near.
Prayer is the simplest form of speech That infant lips can try: Prayer the sublimest strains that reach The Majesty on High.
How noble then is prayer! How incomparably noble! Who would not be a man of prayer? What wise, what sane man, will continue to neglect prayer? "Ask, and it shall be given you; that your joy may be full."
Now, be it understood that neither this text; nor this sermon, is addressed to those who do not pray. Both the prophet and the preacher have their eye this morning on those who not only pray, on occasion, but who also are at pains to perform all those other exercises of mind and heart that enter into prayer. They read the Word of God: they meditate on what they read: they sing God's praise, at home and in the sanctuary; and they repent and reform their life. What more would this prophet have than that? My brethren, this is what he would have: he would have all that done to God. The prophets are all full of this very same accusation, and remonstrance, and protest, that all the acts prescribed by the law of God were done: but, not being done to God, the most scrupulous, the most punctual, the most expensive service was no service at all in God's sight and estimation. "To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith the Lord. When ye come to appear before Me, who hath required this at your hands, to tread My courts? Bring no more vain oblations: incense is an abomination unto Me: the new moons and Sabbaths I cannot away with: it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts My soul hateth. They are a trouble unto Me: I am weary to bear them." That is the climax, indeed, of all such accusations and indignations; but all the prophets are full of the same accusation; and it is all summed up in the short and sharp accusation of the text, "They return, but not to the Most High."
But then on the other hand, we are very happy in having the other side of this matter most impressively and most instructively set before us in a multitude of most precious psalms. And it is this indeed that makes the Psalms the mother and the model of all subsequent books of true devotion: because we see in them those true and spiritual worshippers in Israel returning, and returning to the Most High. Take one of those truly returning Psalmists, and hear him, and imitate him. "Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. Behold, Thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part Thou shalt make me to know wisdom. Hide Thy face from my sins: and blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God: and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from Thy presence: and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. The sacrifices of God are a broken sprit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise." That, my brethren, is true returning to God. And God meets all such returnings, and says, "Come now and let us reason together: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow: though they be red like crimsom, they shall be as wool."
Now, while we have all that in the Old Testament, for our direction, and for our imitation, and for our encouragement, we, New Testament men, are met at every step of our return to God with this great utterance of our Lord on this whole matter: "No man cometh, unto the Father but by Me." And, no sooner have we heard that,-no sooner do we believe that,-than every step of our return to the Most High from that day takes on a new direction. All out religious exercises, public and private, are now directed towards Him of whom the Apostle says, "He dwelt among us,and we have heard, we have seen with our eyes, we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the word of life. That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have felIowship with us." Fellowship, that is, in their fellowship with the Word made flesh, till he that hath seen and heard the Son, has as good as seen and heard the Father; and till all our prayers and praises are to be directed, in the first place, to the Word made flesh, even as in the Old Testament they were directed immediately and only to the Most High. But, with all our New Testament nearness to God; with the Most High, now and for ever, in our own nature; with Jesus Christ, the one Mediator between God and man, near to every one of us,-are we any better of all that? When we return in prayer and in praise, do we return into the very presence of Jesus Christ? Or are we, with all that, as far from Him as the formalists in Israel were far from the Most High? Have we taken any real assistance, and any true advantage, out of the Incarnation in this matter of prayer? The Incarnation of the Son of God has brought many assistances and many advantages to the children of men: and one of the greatest and most momentous is this,-that the Most High is now so near us: and especially so near us when we pray. Now, is that so? As a matter of experience and practice is that so to us? Do we practise the presence of Christ when we pray? Do we think ourselves and imagine ourselves into His presence when we stand up to sing, and kneel down to pray? Have we as keen, and as quick, and as intense, and as ever-present a sense of His presence as we have of the presence of our fellow-worshippers? When, at any time, we kneel in secret, is it no longer secret as it once was; but is the whole place now peopled with the presence of Christ? And, in public worship, are we so overshadowed and overawed with His presence that all those fellow-worshippers around us are, for the time, but so many mere shadows to us? Is it so? Is it becoming so? It will assuredly be so when we return to Jesus Christ in our prayers, and when He presents us and our returning prayers to the Most High.
Speaking for myself,-I have found this device very helpful in my own returnings to my Saviour. And I recommend this same device to you. Make great use of the Four Gospels in your efforts to return to Jesus Christ. Think that you are living in Jerusalem. Think that you are one of the Twelve. Think that you are one of those amazing people who had Him in their streets, and in their homes, every day. And fall down before Him as they did. Speak to Him as they did. Show Him your palsies and your leprosies as they did. Follow Him about, telling Him about your sons and daughters as they did. Tell Him that you have a child nigh unto death as they did. Wash His feet with your tears, and wipe then with the hair of your head, as they did. Work your way through the Four Gospels, from end to end: and, all the time, with a great exercise of faith, believe that He is as much with you as He was with Simon the leper, and with the Syro-Phoenician woman, and with Mary Magdalene, and with Lazarus who had been four days dead, and with the thief on the cross. Read, and believe, and pray. Fall at His feet. Look up in His face. Put Him in remembrance. Put your finger on the very place, and ask Him if that is really true. Ask Him if He did and said that. Ask Him if you are really to believe that, and are safe, in your case also, to act upon that. If you are a scholar, say to yourself as the old scholarly believers said,-Deus ubique est et totus ubique est; and set out again to return to God in Christ in the strength of that. And, if you are an unlearned and an ignorant man, like Peter and John, well, like them say,-"Were not these His words to us while He was yet with us,-Lo, I am with you alway, even to the end of the world." And act your faith again, as if it was indeed so. And the more pure, and naked, and absolute faith you put in Him, and into your prayer,-the more will He take pleasure in you, till He will say to you: "O woman! Woman! I have not found so great faith; no, not in all Israel. Be it unto thee and unto thy daughter, even as thou wilt!" "I came to this at last," says a great Scottish saint,-"I came at last to this, that I would not rise and go away till I felt sure I had had an audience. And I sometimes felt as sure that I was having an audience as if He had been before me in the body."
But, before he came to that, he often said,-and the saying has become classical in the North of Scotland,-lamenting his parched heart he often said, "Surely I have laid my pipe far short of the fountain." And so he had. And so have we. No words could describe our case better than the text; and that other saying so like the text. For we also are always returning; but not to the Most High. We are always laying our pipe, but not up to the fountain. We are always engaged in the exercises of public and private religion. We are not atheists. We are not scoffers. We do not forsake the assembling of ourselves together. We are glad when it is said to us,-Let us go up to the House of the Lord. We enter into His courts with thanksgiving, and into His gates with praise. At the time appointed, we partake of the Lord's Supper; and, again, we bring our children to be baptized. We make our vow, and we pay it. And when at any time we fall into a besetting sin, we hasten to repent and to reform our lives. We incline our hearts again to keep God's commandments.
But, with all that, this so heart-searching, this so soul-exacting text discovers us, and condemns us. We return to all that; but we do not return to the Most High. We lay our pipe up to divine ordinances,-to the most spiritual of divine ordinances: up to prayer, and to praise, and to meditation, and to Sabbaths and to sacraments: but, all the time, all these things are but so many cisterns. All these things, taken together, are not the Fountain. God is the Fountain. And when we return to God, when we lay our pipe up to the true Fountain of living waters,-then we taste an immediateness of communion, and an inwardness of consolation, and a strength of assurance, and a solidity of peace, and a fulness of joy, that are known to those only who truly return to the Most High. Until we are able to say,-and that not out of a great psalm only but much more out of a great personal and indisputable experience,-"Whom have I in heaven but Thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside Thee. My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever."