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Bunyan Characters Second Series: 12. THE SHEPHERD BOY

By Alexander Whyte


      "He humbled Himself."--Paul.

      "Now as they were going along and talking, they espied a boy feeding his father's sheep. The boy was in very mean clothes, but of a very fresh and well-favoured countenance, and as he sat by himself he sang. Hark, said Mr. Greatheart, to what the shepherd boy saith. So they hearkened and he said:

      He that is down, needs fear no fall;
      He that is low no pride:
      He that is humble, ever shall
      Have God to be his guide.

      I am content with what I have,
      Little be it or much:
      And, Lord, contentment still I crave,
      Because thou savest such.

      Fulness to such a burden is
      That go on pilgrimage:
      Here little, and hereafter bliss,
      Is best from age to age.

      Then said their guide, Do you hear him? I will dare say that this boy lives a merrier life and wears more of that herb called Heart's-ease in his bosom than he that is clad in silk and velvet."

      Now, notwithstanding all that, nobody knew better than John Bunyan knew, that no shepherd boy that ever lived on the face of the earth ever sang that song; only one Boy ever sang that song, and He was not the son of a shepherd at all, but the son of a carpenter. And, saying that leads me on to say this before I begin, that I look for a man of John Bunyan's inventive and sanctified genius to arise some day, and armed also to boot with all our latest and best New Testament studies. When that sorely-needed man so arises he will take us back to Nazareth where that carpenter's Boy was brought up, and he will let us see Him with our own eyes being brought up. He will lead us into Mary's house on Sabbath days, and into Joseph's workshop on week days, and he will show us the child Jesus, not so much learning His letters and then putting on His carpenter's clothes, as learning obedience by the things that He every day suffered. That choice author will show us our Lord, both before He had discovered Himself to be our Lord, as well as after He had made that great discovery, always clothing Himself with humility as with a garment; taking up His yoke of meekness and lowly-mindedness every day, and never for one moment laying it down. When some writer with as holy an imagination as that of John Bunyan, and with as sweet an English style, and with a New Testament scholarship of the first order so arises, and so addresses himself to the inward life of our Lord, what a blessing to our children that writer will be! For he will make them see and feel just what all that was in which our Lord's perfect humility consisted, and how His perfect humility fulfilled itself in Him from day to day; up through all His childhood days, school and synagogue days, workshop and holy days, early manhood and mature manhood days; till He was so meek in all His heart and so humble in all His mind that all men were sent to Him to learn their meekness and their humility of Him. I envy that gifted man the deep delight he will have in his work, and the splendid reward he will have in the love and the debt of all coming generations. Only, may he be really sent to us, and that soon! Theodor Keim comes nearest a far-off glimpse of that eminent service of any New Testament scholar I know. Jeremy Taylor and Thomas Goodwin also, in their own time and in their own way, had occasional inspirations toward this still-waiting treatment of the master-subject of all learning and all genius--the inward sanctification, the growth in grace, and then the self-discovery of the incarnate Son of God. But, so let it please God, some contemporary scholar will arise some day soon, combining in himself Goodwin's incomparable Christology, and Taylor's incomparable eloquence, and Keim's incomparably digested learning, with John Bunyan's incomparable imagination and incomparable English style, and the waiting work will be done, and theology for this life will take on its copestone. In his absence, and till he comes, let us attempt a few annotations to-night on this so-called shepherd boy's song in the Valley of Humiliation.

      He that is down, needs fear no fall.

      The whole scenery of the surrounding valley is set before us in that single eloquent stanza. The sweet-voiced boy sits well off the wayside as he sings his song to himself. He looks up to the hill-tops that hang over his valley, and every shining tooth of those many hill-tops has for him its own evil legend. He thinks he sees a little heap of bleaching bones just under where that eagle hangs and wheels and screams. Not one traveller through these perilous parts in a thousand gets down those cruel rocks unhurt; and many travellers have been irrecoverably lost among those deadly rocks, and have never received Christian burial. All the shepherds' cottages and all the hostel supper-tables for many miles round are full of terrible stories of the Hill Difficulty and the Descent Dangerous. And thus it is that this shepherd boy looks up with such fear at those sharp peaks and shining precipices, and lifts his fresh and well-favoured countenance to heaven and sings again: "He that is down, needs fear no fall." Down in his own esteem, that is. For this is a song of the heart rather than of the highway. Down--safe, that is, from the steep and slippery places of self-estimation, self-exaltation, self-satisfaction. Down--so as to be delivered from all ambition and emulation and envy. Down, and safe, thank God, from all pride, all high-mindedness, and all stout-heartedness. Down from the hard and cruel hills, and buried deep out of sight among those meadows where that herb grows which is called Heart's-ease. Down, where the green pastures grow and the quiet waters flow. No, indeed; he that is down into this sweet bottom needs fear no fall. For there is nowhere here for a man to fall from. And, even if he did fall, he would only fall upon a fragrance-breathing bed of lilies. The very herbs and flowers here would conspire to hold him up. Many a day, as He grew up, the carpenter's son sat in that same valley and sang that same song to His own humble and happy heart. He loved much to be here. He loved also to walk these meadows, for He found the air was pleasant. Methinks, He often said with Mercy, I am as well in this valley as I have been anywhere else in My journey. The place, methinks, suits with My spirit. I love to be in such places where there is no rattling with coaches nor rumbling with wheels. Methinks, also, here one may without much molestation be thinking what he is, whence he came, and to what his King has called him.

      He that is low, no pride.

      Low in his own eyes, that is. For pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. Yes; but he who is low enough already--none of the sure destructions that pride always works shall ever come near to him. "The proud man," says Sir Henry Taylor, "is of all men the most vulnerable. 'Who calls?' asks the old shepherd in As You Like It. 'Your betters,' is the insolent answer. And what is the shepherd's rejoinder? 'Else are they very wretched.' By what retort, reprisal, or repartee could it have been made half so manifest that the insult had lighted upon armour of proof? Such is the invincible independence and invulnerability of humility."

      He that is humble ever shall
      Have God to be his guide.

      For thus saith the high and holy 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, to revive the heart of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones . . . All those things hath Mine hand made, but to this man will I look, saith the Lord, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembleth at My word . . . Though the Lord be high, yet hath He respect unto the lowly; but the proud He knoweth afar off . . . Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility; for God resisteth the proud and giveth grace to the humble . . . Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty, neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me. Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child . . . Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.

      I am content with what I have,
      Little be it, or much:
      And, Lord, contentment still I crave,
      Because thou savest such.

      The only thing this sweet singer is discontented with is his own contentment. He will not be content as long as he has a shadow of discontent left in his heart. And how blessed is such holy discontent! For, would you know, asks Law, who is the greatest saint in all the world? Well, it is not he who prays most or fasts most; it is not he who gives most alms or is most eminent for temperance, chastity, or justice. But it is he who is always thankful to God, who wills everything that God willeth, who receives everything as an instance of God's goodness, and has a heart always ready to praise God for it. "Perhaps the shepherd's boy," says Thomas Scott, "may refer to the obscure and quiet stations of some pastors over small congregations, who live almost unknown to their brethren, but are in a measure useful and very comfortable." Perhaps he does. And, whether he does or no, at any rate such a song will suit some of our brethren very well as they go about among their few and far-off flocks. They are not church leaders or popular preachers. There is not much rattling with coaches or rumbling with wheels at their church door. But, then, methinks, they have their compensation. They are without much molestation. They can be all the more thinking what they are, whence they came, and to what their King has called them. Let them be happy in their shut-in valleys. For I will dare to say that they wear more of that herb called Heart's-ease in their bosom than those ministers do they are sometimes tempted to emulate. I will add in this place that to the men who live and trace these grounds the Lord hath left a yearly revenue to be faithfully paid them at certain seasons for their maintenance by the way, and for their further encouragement to go on in their pilgrimage.

      Here little, and hereafter bliss,
      Is best from age to age.

      But, now, from the shepherd boy and from his valley and his song, let us go on without any more poetry or parable to look our own selves full in the face and to ask our own hearts whether they are the hearts of really humble-minded and New Testament men or no. Dr. Newman, "that subtle, devout man," as Dr. Duncan calls him, says that "humility is one of the most difficult of virtues both to attain and to ascertain. It lies," he says, "close upon the heart itself, and its tests are exceedingly delicate and subtle. Its counterfeits abound." Most true. And yet humility is not intended for experts in morals only, or for men of a rare religious genius only. The plainest of men, the least skilled and the most unlettered of men, may not only excel in humility, but may also be permitted to know that they are indeed planted, and are growing slowly but surely in that grace of all graces. No doubt our Lord had, so to describe it, the most delicate and the most subtle of human minds; and, no doubt whatever, He had the most practised skill in reading off what lay closest to His own heart. And, then, it was just His attainment of the most perfect humility, and then His absolute ascertainment of the same, that enabled Him to say: Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me. At the same time, divine as the grace is, and divine as the insight is that is able to trace it out in all its exquisite refinements of thought and feeling in the sanctified soul, yet humility is a human virtue after all, and it is open to all men to attain to it and intelligently and lovingly to exercise it. The simplest and the least philosophical soul now in this house may apply to himself some of the subtlest and most sensitive tests of humility, as much as if he were Dr. Duncan or Dr. Newman themselves; and may thus with all assurance of hope know whether he is a counterfeit and a castaway or no.

      Take this test for one, then. Explain this text to me: Phil. ii. 3--"In lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than himself." Explain and illustrate that. Not from a commentary, but straight out from your own heart. What does your heart make of that scripture? Does your heart turn away from that scripture almost in anger at it? Do you say you are certain that there must be some other explanation of it than that? Do you hold that this is just another of Paul's perpetual hyperboles, and that the New Testament is the last book in the world to be taken as it reads? Yes; both bold and subtle father that he is: counterfeits abound!

      Another much blunter test, but, perhaps, a sufficiently sharp test, is this: How do you receive correction and instruction? Does your heart meekly and spontaneously and naturally take to correction and instruction as the most natural and proper thing possible to you? And do you immediately, and before all men, show forth and exhibit the correction and the instruction? Or, does this rather take place? Does your heart beat, and swell, and boil, and boil over at him who dares to correct or counsel you? If this is a fair test to put our humility to, how little humility there is among us! How few men any of us could name among our friends to whom we would risk telling all the things that behind their backs we point out continually to others? We are terrified to face their pride. We once did it, and we are not to do it again, if we can help it! Let a man not have too many irons in the fire; let him examine himself just by these two tests for the time--what he thinks of himself, and what he thinks of those who attempt, and especially before other people, to set him right. And after these two tests have been satisfied, others will no doubt be supplied till that so humble man is made very humility itself.

      And now, in the hope that there may be one or two men here who are really and not counterfeitly in earnest to clothe themselves with humility before God and man, let them take these two looms to themselves out of which whole webs of such garments will be delivered to them every day--their past life, and their present heart. With a past life like ours, my brethren--and everyman knows his own--pride is surely the maddest state of mind that any of us can allow ourselves in. The first king of Bohemia kept his clouted old shoes ever in his sight, that he might never forget that he had once been a ploughman. And another wise king used to drink out of a coarse cup at table, and excused himself to his guests that he had made the rude thing in his rude potter days. Look with Primislaus and Agathocles at the hole of the pit out of which you also have been dug; look often enough, deep enough, and long enough, and you will be found passing up through the Valley of Humiliation singing:

      "With us He dealt not as we sinn'd,
      Nor did requite our ill!"

      Another excellent use of the past is, if you are equal to it, to call yourself aloud sometimes, or in writing, some of the names that other people who know your past are certainly calling you. It is a terrible discipline, but it is the terror of the Lord, and He will not let it hurt you too much. I was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious, says Paul. And, to show Titus, his gospel-son, the way, he said to him: We ourselves were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. And John Bunyan calls himself a blackguard, and many other worse names; only he swears that neither with his soldiering nor with his tinkering hands did he ever plash down Beelzebub's orchard. But if you have done that, or anything like that, call yourself aloud by your true name on your knees to-night. William Law testifies, after five-and-twenty years' experience of it, that he never heard of any harm that he had done to any in his house by his habit of singing his secret psalms aloud, and sometimes, ere ever he was aware, bursting out in his penitential prayers.

      And, then, how any man with a man's heart in his bosom for a single day can escape being the chief of sinners, and consequently the humblest of men for all the rest of his life on earth, passes my comprehension! How a spark of pride can live in such a hell as every human heart is would be past belief, did we not know that God avenges sin by more sin; avenges Himself on a wicked and a false heart by more wickedness and more falsehood, all ending in Satanic pride.

      Too long as I have kept you in this valley to-night, I dare not let you out of it till I have shared with you a few sentences on evangelical humiliation out of that other so subtle and devout man, Jonathan Edwards. But what special kind of humiliation is evangelical humiliation? you will ask. Hear, then, what this master in Israel says. "Evangelical humiliation is the sense that a Christian man has of his own utter insufficiency, utter despicableness, and utter odiousness; with an always answerable frame of heart. This humiliation is peculiar to the true saints. It arises from the special influence of the Spirit of God implanting and exercising supernatural and divine principles; and it is accompanied with a sense of the transcendent beauty of divine things. And, thus, God's true saints all more or less see their own odiousness on account of sin, and the exceedingly hateful nature of all sin. The very essence of evangelical humiliation consists in such humility as becomes a man in himself exceeding sinful but now under a dispensation of grace. It consists in a mean esteem of himself, as in himself nothing, and altogether contemptible and odious. This, indeed, is the greatest and the most essential thing in true religion." And so on through a whole chapter of beaten gold. To which noble chapter I shall only add that such teaching is as sweet, as strengthening, and as reassuring to the truly Christian heart as it is bitter and hateful to the counterfeit heart.

      * LECTURE DELIVERED IN ST. GEORGE'S FREE CHURCH EDINBURGH

Back to Alexander Whyte index.

See Also:
   1. IGNORANCE
   2. LITTLE-FAITH
   3. THE FLATTERER
   4. ATHEIST
   5. HOPEFUL
   6. TEMPORARY
   7. SECRET
   8. MRS. TIMOROUS
   9. MERCY
   10. MR. BRISK
   11. MR. SKILL
   12. THE SHEPHERD BOY
   13. OLD HONEST
   14. MR. FEARING
   15. FEEBLE-MIND
   16. GREAT-HEART
   17. MR. READY-TO-HALT
   18. VALIANT-FOR-TRUTH
   19. STANDFAST
   20. MADAM BUBBLE
   21. GAIUS
   22. CHRISTIAN
   23. CHRISTIANA
   24. THE ENCHANTED GROUND
   25. THE LAND OF BEULAH
   26. THE SWELLING OF JORDAN

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