Greater Men and Women of the Bible by James Hastings: 023. A Preacher of Righteousness

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Greater Men and Women of the Bible by James Hastings: 023. A Preacher of Righteousness

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A Preacher of Righteousness

Noah … a preacher of righteousness.- 2Pe_2:5.

Though these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they should deliver but their own souls by their righteousness, saith the Lord God.- Eze_14:14.

1. The attitude of Noah was that of a reformer. He was not content to look after himself. He would fain save the people from the penalty of wrong-doing. And so he became a preacher of righteousness in their midst. There is a moral grandeur in Noah's character, and a pathetic interest in his mission, which entitle him to our highest esteem. We imagine Enoch as living apart from the crowd-repelled by their mode of life, and pleased to make his escape. We think of him as spending his life in the presence of God upon the plane of undisturbed communion. And he who lived away from earth so much, even whilst a sojourner, at last left it altogether, and was glad enough to get away. But Noah was not thus favoured. He was neither circumstanced nor constituted thus, and scarcely desired to be. He must have experienced great agony of soul as he beheld a scene of wild disorder and confusion. His heart must have been heavy with the burden of a people's sin. He deplored their folly, and foresaw their doom. Could he cure the one, or prevent the other? Would they learn the lesson of the Ark, and avert the disaster of a flood? He knew not, but he would do his best. And if his daily protest failed to convince, he would still continue under the eye of God, and in hope of a brighter dawn.

2. The state of the world was bad exceedingly, yet Noah did not despair and remain silent. At a certain stage of despair to drop the curtain and be done with the world is a very easy thing; but at no stage is it the highest thing. The highest thing is to refuse to accept the position of the world as final, to insist on remaining within it until its sin is washed away. That is the attitude of Noah. He is the sad spectator of a scene of moral corruption. His heart is heavy with the burden of a degenerate race. Yet he refuses to abandon the role of a declaimer. He clings to the hope that, when the ship is shattered by the storm, there may be left entire a single plank which shall be the foundation of a new vessel, destined for wider and nobler service.

“He shall comfort us concerning the work of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord hath cursed.” Such was the hope which centred round his life. I understand the words to mean, “His piety shall profit us, his prayers shall bring good harvests.” Yet this is the man who becomes a thorn in the side of that old world! There he stands-a solitary figure over against a multitude! He plants himself suddenly in the highway and raises into shrill accents that voice which hitherto had been silent. The note of his preaching is Reform. He calls to his countrymen: “You are in a delusion. You think you are building on the solid earth. I tell you that you are separated by a thin crust from a flood of waters. You and I are in the path of an overwhelming tide, and I do not mean to stay there; I must have something to breast the coming waves. Will you not avert their coming? Will you not realize before it is too late that if you crush out mind by matter you have broken the only embankment that restrains the sea? Will you let in a rush of waters that will drown society, engulf order, submerge law, swamp the paths of peace, overwhelm the meek and gentle, bury fathoms deep the aspirations of the heart?”1 [Note: G. Matheson.]

3. Why was it that Noah was so signally unsuccessful as a preacher? Was it because it was righteousness that he preached? That may very well have been the reason; for righteousness is the one thing that our hearers will not have at our hands. All other kinds of preaching-polemical preaching, apologetical preaching, historical and biographical preaching, sacramental preaching, evangelical preaching-some of our people will welcome, and will indeed demand; but they will all agree in refusing and resenting the preaching of righteousness; the preaching of repentance and reformation; the preaching of conversation and conduct and character.

My one and sole remaining ambition in life is to preach righteousness. To preach righteousness,-the nature of it, the means to attain it, the terrible difficulty of attaining it, and the splendid reward it will be to him who at last attains it. To preach righteousness, and all matters connected with righteousness, first to myself, then to my sons, and then to my people. This one thing I do.1 [Note: A. Whyte.]

On the whole, poor Irving's style of preaching was sufficiently surprising to his hide-bound Presbyterian public; and this was but a slight circumstance to the novelty of the matter he set forth upon them. Actual practice: “If this thing is true, why not do it? You had better do it; there will be nothing but misery and ruin in not doing it!”-that was the gist and continual purport of all his discoursing;-to the astonishment and deep offence of hide-bound mankind.2 [Note: Carlyle, Reminiscences, ii. 42.]

4. The event in which Noah believed before it came was appealed to in a later age by St. Peter, as furnishing a reason for believing in a still future and greater catastrophe. St. Peter is writing at the very close of his life, and already a sufficient time had elapsed since the Ascension of our Lord to allow for the formation of doubts respecting His Second Coming, doubts which were based upon the laws of life. “Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.” The Apostle reminds those who argued thus that time has no meaning for the Eternal God, and that to apply our notions of the difference between greater and less portions of it to His Majestic Providences is to forget that there is simply no such thing as succession in His unbegun, unending Life. “Beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” But if Christ's delay meant nothing but His long-suffering, the unchanging order of the world could not be urged as a reason for disbelief in the catastrophe of a future judgment, because the past history of the world already contained at least one eminent example of such a catastrophe. “By the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished.” In other words, water had been the instrument by which the surface of the earth was moulded, and one of the constituent elements of its well-being and productiveness; yet at the creative word of God, from being a servant and a blessing, it became an overmastering force and scourge. What had been, might yet be; another element had yet a work to do in God's providence, and neither the lapse of years nor the regularity of the observed order of nature was any real reason for presuming that the final catastrophe would not come at last. “The heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment, and perdition of ungodly men.”

Nature keeps silently a most exact Savings-bank, and official register, correct to the most evanescent item. Debtor and Creditor, in respect to one and all of us; silently marks down, Creditor by such and such an unseen act of veracity and heroism: Debtor to such a loud blustery blunder, twenty-seven million strong or one unit strong, and to all acts and words and thoughts executed in consequence of that,-Debtor, Debtor, Debtor, day after day, rigorously as Fate (for this is Fate that is writing); and at the end of the account you will have it all to pay, my friend; there is the rub! This used to be a well-known fact; and daily still, in certain edifices, steeple-houses, joss-houses, temples sacred or other, everywhere spread over the world, we hear some dim mumblement of an assertion that such is still, what it was always and will for ever be, the fact; but meseems it has terribly fallen out of memory nevertheless; and, from Dan to Beersheba, one in vain looks out for a man that really in his heart believes it. In his heart he believes, as we perceive, that scrip will yield dividends: but that Heaven too has an office of account, and unerringly marks down, against us or for us, whatsoever thing we do or say or think, and treasures up the same in regard to every creature-this I do not so well perceive that he believes. Poor blockhead, no: he reckons that all payment is in money, or approximately representable by money; finds money go a strange course; disbelieves the Parson and his Day of Judgment; discerns not that there is any judgment except in the small or big debt court; and lives (for the present) on that strange footing in this Universe. The unhappy mortal, what is the use of his “civilizations” and his “useful knowledges,” if he have forgotten that beginning of human knowledge; the earliest perception of the awakened human soul in this world; the first dictate of Heaven's inspiration to all men? I cannot account him a man any more; but only a kind of human beaver, who has acquired the art of ciphering.1 [Note: Carlyle, Latter-Day Pamphlets.]

5. Noah was a preacher not only by words but by deeds. In consequence of the corruption of mankind he was commissioned to prepare an ark for the saving of himself and his family from the waters of the deluge. Thus not only Noah himself but every tree that fell in the forest, and every plank that was laid in the ark; every axe-stroke and the echo of every hammer was a louder and ever louder call to the men of that corrupt and violent day to flee from the wrath to come. But, sad to say, the very men without whose help the ark would never have been built; the very men who felled the trees, and planed and laid the planks, and careened and caulked the seams of the finished ship-those very men failed to take a passage in that ship for themselves, for their wives and for their children.

Many a skilled and high-paid carpenter, many a strong-limbed and grimy-faced blacksmith, and many a finisher and decorator in woodwork and in iron, must have gnashed their teeth and cursed one another when they saw their children drowning all around them, and the ark shut, and borne up, and lifted up above the earth. But those carpenters and blacksmiths and finishers were wise men and their loss was salvation compared with many of those architects and builders and ornamenters of churches who compete with one another and undersell one another in our day. As also compared with all those publishers and printers and booksellers of Bibles, and all those precentors and choirs and organists, and all those elders and deacons and doorkeepers, who are absolutely indispensable to the Kingdom of God, but who are all the time themselves outside of it. The Gibeonites in Israel were hewers of wood and drawers of water to Israel; they dwelt in Israel, and had their victuals there, but they were all the time aliens from the commonwealth of Israel. And all Noah's own excellent sermons, all his pulpit appeals about righteousness, and all his crowds of congregations would not have kept his grey head above the rising waters that he had so often described in his sermons, had he not himself gone and done what the Lord commanded him to do. That is to say, had he not, not only prepared the ark, but had he not gone up into the ark, and asked the Lord to shut him in. We ministers may preach the very best of gospels to you, and yet at the end of our ministry be castaways ourselves. “What if I,” wrote Rutherford to Lady Kenmure-“What if I, who can have a subscribed testimonial of many who shall stand at the right hand of the Judge, shall myself miss Christ's approval, and be set upon the left hand? There is such a beguile, and it befalleth many. What if it befall me, who have but too much art to cover my own soul and others with the flourish of ministerial, country holiness!” The next Sabbath after that on which Noah preached his last sermon on righteousness, sea monsters were already whelping and stabling in his pulpit.1 [Note: A. Whyte.]