THE one immutable law of good and evil is progress; each by its very existence demands and promotes increase. The good becomes very good, and the evil very evil. Hence it is a most serious question whether I am engaged with that which is really good, or with that which is evil in God's judgement.
In the passage in Jeremiah the words at the head of this paper were applied, not to some particular works, or to mere conduct, but to the course adopted by each. Those who were good adopted and adhered to the path approved of by God, and those who did not bow to His ways were evil, very evil. It is the principle of which I speak here, and it is important to seize it -- that I am "good" when I follow and adhere to that which God marks out for me, however small and humiliating it may be in the eyes of man; and that it is "evil" when, contrary to God's counsel, I cleave to things now prohibited because of man's failure, refused and forbidden.
In the day of Israel's captivity those who recognised the ruin of Israel accepted the captivity, and they were good, very good. "Thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel; Like these good figs, so will I acknowledge them that are carried away captive of Judah, whom I have sent out of this place into the land of the Chaldeans' for their good. For I will set mine eyes upon them for good, and I will bring them again to this land: and I will build them, and not pull them down; and I will plant them, and not pluck them up. And I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God: for they shall return unto me with their whole heart", Jeremiah 24:5-7. While, on the contrary, those who would not bow, but would remain in the land as if nothing had happened to disqualify them, were evil, very evil.
Very amiable, highly moral men might have been among the latter, but whatever they were in their immediate behaviour, they were, as to testimony to God, evil, very evil; while those who had accepted the place of littleness in man's eye, and who were wholly cast on God, were, however naturally unattractive, good, very good. However one may be influenced by another to a certain point, no one can, in simple faith, enter on or continue in the lowly path approved of by God in a day of failure, unless he is walking in grace. He cannot be really in faith if he is not walking with God, for faith is seeing Him who is invisible. If often happens that there is more genuine faith in a Jacob - one who has learned something of the plague of his own heart -- than there is in an amiable Isaac; for when he is walking in faith, he is in grace superior to his own waywardness.
Having seen that it is the course one pursues which really determines whether one is good or evil, let us next examine how each respectively increases, so that the good becomes very good and the evil very evil. Continuance under any governing power must necessarily increase its rule and influence over us. The more we are under it, the more we shall be under it. Thus habits are called 'second nature'. Cain may have intended well when he began, but he was wrong in his course from the first; hence he was evil, and in the end proved to be very evil. Thus Lot, possibly exemplary in all the relations of life, took a wrong course when he chose the well-watered plains ; he, by degrees, became more and more identified with this wrong course; he dwelt in Sodom, and sat in the gate of it. Even though his righteous soul was vexed from day to day with their unlawful deeds, he was more under the control of a wrong influence, and hence the evil was very evil.
When one has been carried away by an evil influence, he can never estimate the extent of his departure until, by the good hand of the Lord, he seeks to return to the ground which he has abandoned. So it was with Lot; until he was aroused by God's mercy he had no idea of the depth of the wickedness there, or its power to render his sons-in-law insensible to his exhortation, though angels authorised and corroborated it. It is one of the terrible characteristics of an evil influence, that one never knows the depth he has sunk to until he tries to rise out of it. It is a delusion all the way down, and therefore the repentance or recovery is also gradual, and for this reason deeper, as there is advance to restoration. What a morning it was to Lot when he began his departure, his deliverance, out of Sodom; but if his repentance had been full, he would not have tarried anywhere short of the place of faith. Aaron and those who acted with him may not have offended against any natural order. They may have been, and doubtless were, greatly esteemed by the congregation; and yet by their course they proved themselves evil, very evil, and made the people naked unto their shame among their enemies. It is important to see that a wrong course adopted by the best of men is evil, and increases in evil, so that the evil spread like a plague through the whole congregation. "The people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play". And they found, to their sorrow, that it was easier to fall into a snare than to get out of it.
In like manner with the spies; ten of them did not fail in conduct, so called, but having lost faith in God, and having been terrified by the giants in Canaan, and the cities walled up to heaven, they not only took a wrong course for themselves, but they discouraged the people - the evil became very evil. They might have pleaded their honesty, and their care for the people too, but they lost sight of the Lord, and started aside like a deceitful bow, and thus promoted a universal defection; it was the "day of provocation". Caleb and Joshua, on the other hand, were the "good", who became more distinctly good every day, and were increasingly bright in their testimony to that great truth, "Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is. For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit", Jeremiah 17:7-8.
Thus also the two-and-a-half tribes were wrong in their course, and the more they adhered to it the worse it became, so that they were the first to be overpowered by the enemy. It is more than probable that, as men, they were most amiable and commendable in daily life, but they were so interested in their own immediate advantages that they adopted and pursued a course at variance with the true one. The more they continued in it the more distinct was their departure. Now in a good course, the more I walk in it, the more I am upheld by the Lord, and I become "strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus". "The path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day", Proverbs 4:18. There is, as I might say, just the opposite feeling to what there is in a wrong course. In the wrong, I slip as down a precipice, and have no idea of the rapidity with which I am descending. I feel at ease, or succeeding in my desires, and therefore I am more pleased than alarmed, until the dart strikes through my liver; and then, alas I know I have been deluded. When I pursue a right course there is a sense of ascending; I am conscious that I must be self-denying, that the knowledge of the holy is paramountly necessary. It is a conflict, but there is a sense of present help and light arising in the darkness.
Jonah, in another day, ran counter to the path prescribed for him by the Lord as a servant. However personally amiable he might be, yet in following his own will in contravention of the Lord's directions he was evil, and every step he took in that course was increasingly evil. It is not so much the particular act which I do which determines its character, as whether it is of God or of man. If the former, it is good; if the latter, it is evil. An act might be very evil with regard to God, which as far as man sees, did not inflict any injury on man. When man is injured, everyone can see the evil, and reprobate it; but this is an evil in the sight of God, and very grievous too, when man thinks of himself only, and slights the will and mind of God. Peter, in following the Lord to the high priest's house, was doing his own will; it was evil, and soon became very evil. The apostle Paul, though most exemplary in life and morals, "touching ... the law, blameless", found his course had been evil, very evil -- the worst, or, as he calls himself, "the chief of sinners", simply because he was using all his abilities to damage and cripple the church, which is God's great centre of interest and love on the earth. It is striking that he condemns himself, not for anything immoral, but simply and solely for running in direct opposition to, and contravention of, God's main concern and object on the earth at the present time. Thus the man who, through grace, was beyond all others to uphold and suffer even to death in his care for the church, the one who pre-eminently was good, very good, in his course to the end, was the one who had in his own person, when following his own will, represented the course that was evil, very evil.
When Paul contended for the truth of the gospel, the good was very good, and if Peter had not repented, the evil would have been very evil. As it was, Barnabas was carried away by their dissimulation. The way to check the evil is by strictly and unswervingly insisting on the right course; and as this is insisted on, the good becomes apparent, and established, and then it is very good. But if the wrong course be not at once renounced and repented of, it will increase, according to its evil, to more ungodliness. For as the good is brought out into distinctness, there will be less excuse for the wrong one, and the folly shall be "made manifest unto all", though the leaders may not repent but wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived.
In conclusion, may we be warned and encouraged to refuse any course which is not of God; may we have such simple faith in Him that we can, like the faithful in Israel in that day, accept the place of confessed weakness, without place or name on the earth, confident in heart that the Lord is sufficient for us, and that though there be no bread in the ship, nothing to minister to or prop up the man or his resources, the Lord is adequate for every exigency. To advocate and adhere to the use of human means in any way whatever, with respect to service or position, is giving the first man a place, and is like the Israelites who refused to accept the captivity; while if we accept and acknowledge that we have no power but of God, that we are captives among men, and our strength is only as we are upheld and led by the Spirit of God, He will enable us, though diminished in the eyes of men, to maintain His name in the midst of our enemies, so that there may still be a bright testimony for Him on the earth, even as there was in Babylon the great.