The Apostle, in the verse preceding, had unfolded a
mighty--may we not rather say the mightiest agency in the spiritual life of
the believer--the work and "intercession" of the Third Person in the blessed
Trinity. We found the Spirit of truth specially revealed as the "Helper of
infirmities,"--acting, not as we do often, blindly, erroneously, with
wayward capricious impulses, but "according to the will of God."
In the present note of his Song, Paul prolongs and
deepens the cadence. It is a Lullaby by which, with "mother-love," God
hushes His children to rest. It is not in one thing but in "all things" we
are called to own and recognize the gracious influence which the Searcher of
hearts--who "knows what is the mind of the Spirit"--exercises on His Church
"For we know that all things work together for good to
those who love God; to those who are the called according to His purpose"
Though it be "all things," whether prosperous or adverse,
joyous or sorrowful, which combine and co-operate for our present and
everlasting well-being; it is doubtless the season and discipline of
affliction which are here mainly adverted to. "All things,"--"all for good."
It is a luminous rainbow set in the cloud with its full complement of
prismatic colors. He had in a preceding verse spoken of sonship, and the
wealth of glory associated with it. He would wish to assure his readers in
every age, that afflictions were not incompatible with so lofty a heritage.
He would enforce and strengthen his recent affirmation--"The sufferings
of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall
be revealed." All events are under God's sovereign control, from the
fall of the sparrow to the fall of an empire--but very specially does His
supervision extend to the kingdom of grace and those who are its subjects
and residents. We have already, more than once, mentioned the surmise, that
at the very time these words were written--the gardens of the Quirinal may
have been the scene of the infernal orgies of Nero. If so, whether the
torments had already been undergone, or were only too surely in prospect,
the utterance of our verse would prove a wonderful key-note of comfort to
the martyr's death-Song. We can only think of the possibility of anguished
sufferers seeking to support and cheer each other with the strain.
Let us proceed now to speak of these suffering children
of the Kingdom. Their special CHARACTER and their special PRIVILEGE
are conjointly described.
(1) One notable and distinguishing characteristic is,
that they "Love God." As Dean Alford remarks, "This is a stronger
designation of believers than any yet used in the chapter." It is indeed a
brief but most perfect portraiture of the divine family--we may add, a
beautiful description of true religion.
How often is this latter travestied and misrepresented by
selfish theories; as if it consisted in a life-long requirement to follow
what is right, and to hate what is sinful. By doing so to escape future
retribution, and be recompensed at last with some indefinite rewards in
heaven. How much more blessed and elevating the Apostle's definition of
believers in the present verse--"Those who love God." Loving Him for
the sake of His own perfect and supreme loveliness; loving Him on account of
the love He has lavished on the unworthy and undeserving; the love with
which He loved me before I loved Him--the love which loved me when an
enemy! What can stay the enmity, and evoke the responsive affection of
the human spirit like this? The mother's heart may be found so dead to
feeling as to thrill with no gratitude towards the man who at the risk of
life plunged into the seething flood and laid her rescued child at her feet.
The slave's heart may be found so dead to feeling as not to love the master
who has struck off his fetters and set him free. But the soul to which has
been revealed, in all its wondrous reality, the love of God in Christ,
cannot, dare not, resist the impulse to love the Divine Being who has
first loved, and so loved. Conscious in some feeble measure of
its length and breadth and depth and height, in answer to the question, "Do
you love Me?" the recipient of "Love so amazing, so divine," can say, amid
felt frailties and mournful shortcomings--"Lord, You know all things, You
know that I love You!" As the rays of the sun falling on a polished mirror
are returned again to the fountain of light, so God's love falling on the
soul takes the love it has enkindled back to the Great Fountain of Love.
Religion is thus restored to its proper place, as essentially a thing of the
heart, inward, subjective. No outward church or organization can make a
Christian, except in name. You may try, by external appliances or artificial
devices, to induce a man to love God; just as it has been said, you may tie
branches or fruit on a living tree and give for a while the semblance of
life; but it is the semblance only. There is no vital union with the
stem--the energizing principle, permeating every fiber, is lacking--"The
love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given unto
us." His true children love Him, because His own ineffable love has
vitalized, influenced, interpenetrated their whole being.
To use a different figure and illustration regarding
them--we see in vigorous action, not the centrifugal force of many harsh
theological creeds and systems, where Deity is fled from, evaded, dreaded;
but rather the centripetal force, drawing souls to the Parent Orb, as the
Sun does erratic planets and satellites, by the gravitation power of love.
"God is love, and he that dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him."
(2) The second characteristic of believers here described
is, that they are "the called according to His Purpose."
On this, however, I shall not now enlarge, as it will
come to be considered more appropriately and in order, where the theme is
reverted to by the Apostle in the subsequent context; one of the links in a
golden chain of blessings. Enough to remark that it is an additional
reason--indeed the initiatory reason for believers' love to God, that they
are the objects and recipients of His free, sovereign, unmerited goodness.
"It is not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that shows
mercy." We might, moreover, write pages of comment, but nothing could be so
pertinent and comprehensive as the words of Paul in the last of his pastoral
epistles--"Who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according
to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given us
in Christ Jesus before the world began" (2 Tim. 1;9). Being thus "called
according to His purpose," nothing can thwart or nullify that divine
decree--nothing dispossess us of our patrimony as "joint-heirs with Christ."
In one word--salvation is secure.
We pass now, from the twofold character and description
of believers, to the assurance of an inestimable PRIVILEGE. "And
we know that all things work together for good."
The phraseology of this verse always strikes us as being
alike natural and peculiar. It is one of the Apostle's personal avowals--an
article in his own individual creed--at all events, he includes himself in
the assertion. But how does he formulate the privilege so claimed? Specially
observe, he does not say "we see," but "we know." Had he
adopted the former expression, he would have averred what was not the case.
He would have contradicted himself. Inasmuch as he elsewhere distinctly
states--to take one of several similar assertions--"Now we see through a
glass darkly." And in this he only anticipates the honest, heartfelt
experience of every Christian. We often see things apparently not
working for good--no, rather, working the opposite; startling irregularities
in God's providential dealings--the saying of the Patriarch--the rash
saying, but which to us seems at the time a true one--"All these things are
against me." We discern no "bright light in the clouds." Often all is
blurred and murky and fog-like, not infrequently in apparent infringement of
goodness and wisdom and righteousness. We impeach the divine rectitude, and
question the dealings of the Supreme Disposer. But how so? Simply because we
are faithless, and blind ourselves to the ulterior purposes of the Almighty.
We are hasty and premature in our judgments. We have not, to use the phrase
of a preceding verse, "the patience to wait" the final outcome of the
great drama, the "needs be," that will sooner or later be made manifest.
To take a purely secular illustration which occurs at
random. Go back to ancient Greece or Italy. Take your stand under the slopes
of Pentelicus, or the ridges of the Apennine Carrara. In both cases, why
these unsightly gashes in the fair mountain forms? Why these blocks rudely
dislodged from where they have rested undisturbed since the last upheaval
long ages ago of earth's surface; yokes of patient oxen dragging them within
city walls to the studios of Athenian and Tuscan sculptors? Suspend your
verdict until after years of toil, Phidias has chiseled his Pentelican into
the richly ornamented Parthenon--or until Michael Angelo has wrought out his
Florentine "Night and Morning," or the Pieta of Peter's. The insensate
blocks have been transfigured into breathing forms which have educated the
world and proved the pride and despair of the ages. The result was doubtless
what few of their contemporaries or fellow-citizens could comprehend at the
time. But the great artists themselves were confident. They saw, underneath
these cumbrous masses of stone or marble, shapes of angels and heroes; and
were content to wait until genius and its cunning tools had worked them out.
Or, take a Gospel memory. Go to the village on the slopes
of Olivet which had for days been darkened by the shadow of death. A beloved
brother has been mysteriously removed. Two lone sisters are left in a
paroxysm of grief--and the saddest element in their trial is--that "the
Master" is absent. That long descent to the Jordan, and farther still, some
of the hills of Peraea, separate them from the only Being in the wide world
who could have stemmed their pulsing tide of grief, and averted the terrible
catastrophe to home and heart. The wild soliloquy during the long hours is
ever on their lips--If HE had only been here, our brother would not have not
died! Perhaps, stranger still, when they sent a messenger with speed down
these Judean passes and across Jordan to acquaint the absent Savior with the
bereavement; instead of, at once, in responsive sympathy obeying their
summons and hastening to their support--the narrative gives this unexpected
extinguisher to their hopes--"When He had heard, therefore, that he was
sick, He abode two days still in the same place where He was!" Who could
dare say, on the first reading of that poignant Gospel episode--that "all
these things were for good"? They seemed the terrible reverse--a very
mockery of their dearest hopes and prayers; "Why is He so long in
coming?--Why tarry the wheels of His chariot?" Wait the sequel. "At evening
time there shall be light." The hour, long delayed, arrives at last, when
they rejoice over a restored brother, and a present Master and Friend. The
Sun that had for days waded through clouds, sets in crimson and gold on that
home of Bethany.
Do we duly consider, in rehearsing this touching
narrative, what the Church--what individual believers--above all, what
sorrowing ones would have lost, but for that episode of tarrying love--that
strange frustration of hope during these two mysterious days, when the ear
of mercy seemed heavy that it could not hear? What lessons of trust and
patience and submission would have been forfeited, had there not been
preserved to us these shadows in the divine picture, all needed to bring out
in bold relief its wonderful lights? If Martha--with her rash, outspoken,
impulsive nature, ventured in the climax of her grief and despair to upbraid
her Lord for His absence--so unlike Himself--His past kindnesses--when trial
afterwards overtook her, as doubtless in many forms it did--we think these
memories of the absence, and the lingering beyond Jordan, would put a
different soliloquy in her lips--could it fail to be this--"And we know
that all things work together for good!"
Yes, we may well trust our loving Father-God and
gracious Savior, when we fail to trace their dealings with us. All
things "work together." The Song is made up of separate parts,
combined tones. It is a piece of "concerted music." The shuttles are here
and there weaving their dark threads; but it will only be, by contrast of
color, for the perfecting of the pattern. Each thread is needful--the black
and somber as well as the bright.
Perhaps the time of all others when we most fail to
understand the mysteries of the divine dealings with us, is that very hour
we have just described in the experience of the family of Bethany--an hour
sadly familiar to most, if not to all--the hour when lives that have made
our own hearts glad and the world beautiful--angel-faces and angel-hearts
have vanished--when the shuttles of life we have spoken of have been
mysteriously arrested and stilled--leaving a blurred tapestry--an unfinished
web. It is Heaven and the Great Beyond which can alone suggest and supply
the true solution. The pattern left uncompleted here, will be finished
there. "Good"--the good of our verse "will be the final goal of all apparent
"'And now I will weave my web,' she said,
As she turned to her loom before set of sun,
And laid her hand on the shining threads
To set them in order, one by one.
She dropped the shuttle; the loom stood still;
The weaver slept in the twilight grey;
Dear heart--she will weave her beautiful web
In the golden light of a longer day!"
Meanwhile, it is not death but life that
concerns us. In its manifold and complex phases--in all its changes
and chances, let us feel that we are protected by "the wings of God." And
even if it be the shadow of His wings--under these let us take our
refuge, until earth's calamities be overpast.
"I have reared in shadow my flower of love,
It has bloomed, O Father, by night to Thee;
It has oped its petals to hopes above,
To a day it could not see,
And in time to come I shall fear no foe,
Though the sky be dark and the air be chill,
For I know that the flower of love can glow
When the sun has set on the hill."
There is a gracious discipline underlying what is
outwardly adverse; and an enlarged and deepening experience will teach us
so. Paul seems as if he could have written his present words with even
greater confidence in a future year. He could emphasize them with the
advance of his life. We all remember how, when his dearest aspirations
seemed crossed and baffled--when chained to a soldier of the imperial
barracks or within the gloomy walls of the State prison, he could say with
buoyant confidence--"The things that have happened unto me have fallen out
rather to the furtherance of the Gospel." If we may quote the words of one
in many ways a contrast to our Apostle, yet who has left his name in the
present age--"As to the very trial itself," says Newman, "there is nothing
in any way to fear. 'All things work together for good to those who love
God.' I am firmly and rootedly persuaded of this. Everything that happens to
them is most certainly the very best, in every light, that could by any
possibility have happened. God will give good…I have nothing to apprehend.
This is indeed a privilege, for it takes away all care as to the future."
Can we, by anticipation--or rather with something of the
faith that Paul had, feel the same, and say the same?
Reverting to our sculpture illustration, can we adopt our Apostle's words
elsewhere--"Now He who has wrought (chiseled, polished) us for the
self-same thing is God" (2 Cor. 5;5). And if it be some very exceptional and
mysterious trial, can we add with him--continuing the same figure--"Our
light affliction…WORKS for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of
glory"? Let us accept with unmurmuring lips the dealings of the Divine
Chastener, whatever these may be. He will not impose upon us burdens that we
are unable to carry. It is His own gracious promise, "I will correct you
in measure" (Jer. 30;11.) "For all there were so many, yet was not the
net broken." The hour assuredly is coming, when whatever befalls us will be
seen to be not only for the best, but the best; the retrospect
of life a retrospect of love--every tongue of His ransomed Church brought to
confess--"He has done ALL THINGS well." The remembrance of the crucible will
only be the removal of the dross and alloy, and the transforming into pure
In closing, let us emphasize the lesson of the present
meditation--that of simple, unhesitating, unfaltering TRUST.
"Trust Him when dark doubts assail you;
Trust Him when your strength is small;
Trust Him, when to simply trust Him,
Seems the hardest thing of all!"
Trust Him in great things, trust Him in little things.
Trust Him in the battle of life, whether for yourself, or for those near and
dear to you whom you have seen, it may be with tremulous misgivings, going
down into the fray. Augustine's mother, that never-to-be-forgotten night,
when, first in the chapel of the Martyr Cyprian, and then by the seashore,
she made the lonely hours echo with her doleful lamentations, could never
believe that God was making things combine for good, when her beloved but
wayward son had eluded her watch, and, aided by prosperous breezes, taken
ship to Rome. She could only conjure up the fierce temptations that would
assail an impressionable and still vacillating nature, in the great Babylon.
When nothing else could avail her, prayer remained. But these prayers were
answered in a way undreamt of. The day came when mother and son together
could take down the harp from the willows and adore the same Providence
which, three centuries previously, had permitted a fanatic Pharisee to pass
through the northern gate of Jerusalem and to "journey towards Damascus." In
both cases, the fiery ardent souls--"the called according to God's
purpose"--were translated, by reason of those very journeyings, out of the
kingdom of darkness, and flooded with "a light above the brightness of the
"Know well, my soul, God's hand controls
Whatever you may fear;
Round Him in calmest music rolls
Whatever you may hear.
That cloud itself which now before you
Lies dark in view,
Shall with beams of light from the inner glory
Be stricken through."
Trust Him in DEATH! As in life the promise of our present
meditation has been again and again realized--so also and conspicuously so
at life's close. It has formed the "Swan-Song"--the departing cadence of not
a few, before joining the minstrelsy of the skies. The last words of
Chrysostom were these--as if catching inspiration from the Apostle's
saying--"Glory to God for ALL THINGS." The same occupied the closing
thoughts of the Scottish Reformer John Knox. "When his sight failed him,"
his biographer relates, "he called for the large Bible; caused one of his
family to put his finger on the 28th verse of the eighth chapter of Romans,
and told those who not only he died in the faith of what was in the chapter,
but firmly believed that all things, and death itself, should work
together for his good; and in a little he slept in Jesus."
Shall it be so, reader, with you and me? Shall this sweet
snatch of harmony in Paul's Song of Songs, ever consoling--ever precious as
we have described it in seasons of mystery and darkness--an anodyne amid the
present fret and fever of the world, be at last a soothing strain and
monotone hushing to rest in the hour of departure?--"All things"…and "All
things for good!"--"So He Gives His Beloved Sleep."