2Ki_5:18-19. In this thing the Lord pardon thy servant, that when my master goeth into the house of Rimmon to worship there, and he leaneth on my hand, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon: when I bow down myself in the house of Rimmon, the Lord pardon thy servant in this thing. And he said unto him, Go in peace.
THE operation of divine grace is uniform in every age and place: it makes a total revolution in the views and habits of the person in whom it dwells. See how it wrought on Naaman! Before he felt its influence he was full of pride and unbelief; and notwithstanding his request for the healing of his leprosy was granted, yet because it was not granted in the precise way that he expected, he would not comply with the directions of the prophet, but “turned, and went away in a rage.” But, when his leprosy was healed, and in conjunction with that mercy the grace of God wrought powerfully upon his soul, he returned with most heartfelt gratitude to the prophet, renounced his idol-worship, and devoted himself altogether to the God of Israel. At the same time however that he embraced the true religion, he made a request, which has been differently interpreted by different commentators; some vindicating it as illustrative of a tender conscience, and others condemning it as an indication of an unsound mind.
We think that great and learned men are apt to judge of particular passages, according as their own general views and habits of life incline them: those who are lax in their own conduct, leaning too much to a laxity of interpretation; and those who are strict in their principles, not daring, as it were, to concede to men the liberty which God has given them [Note: We conceive that few Christians in the world would have approved of the statement in Romans 14 if it had not been contained in the inspired volume.]. But we should neither abridge the Christian’s liberty, nor extend it beyond its just bounds: and we apprehend that the passage before us will assist us materially in assigning to it its proper limits, and will itself receive the most satisfactory interpretation when viewed according to its plain and obvious import.
We propose then to consider,
The concession here made—
We do not hesitate to call Elisha’s answer a concession. To regard it as an evasion of the question is to dishonour the prophet exceedingly, and to contradict the plainest import of his words. His answer is precisely the same as that of Jethro to Moses [Note: Exo_4:18.]; and must be interpreted as an approbation of the plan proposed to him. Let us consider then the true import of Naaman’s question—
[Naaman proposed to continue in the king of Syria’s service, and to attend him as usual to the house of Rimmon, the god whom his master worshipped: and as his master always leaned upon his arm on those occasions, (a practice common with kings at that time, even with the kings of Israel, as well as others [Note: 2Ki_7:2; 2Ki_7:17.],) he must of necessity accommodate himself to his master’s motion, and bow forward when he did, in order not to obstruct him in his worship. This he proposed to do; and his communication of his intentions to the prophet must be understood in a two-fold view; namely, As an inquiry for the regulation of his judgment, and as a guard against a misconstruction of his conduct.
The case was certainly one of great difficulty, and especially to a young convert, to whom such considerations were altogether new. On the one hand, he felt in his own mind that he should not participate in the worship of his master; and yet he felt that his conduct would be open to such a construction. Having therefore access to an inspired prophet, he was glad to have his difficulty solved, that so he might act as became a servant of Jehovah, and enjoy the testimony of a good conscience.
Being determined, if the prophet should approve of it, so to act, he desired to cut off all occasion for blame from others. He knew how ready people are to view things in an unfavourable light; and that, if he should do this thing of himself, he might appear to be unfaithful to his convictions, and to have relapsed into idolatry: he therefore entered, as it were, a protest against any such surmises, and gave a public pledge that he would do nothing that should be inconsistent with his professed attachment to Jehovah.
In this view of the subject, his question was every way right and proper. The honour of God and the salvation of his own soul depended on his not doing any thing that should be inconsistent with his profession; and therefore he did right to ask advice: and lest he should by any means cast a stumbling-block before others, he did well in explaining his views and intentions beforehand. What terrible evils had well nigh arisen from the neglect of such a precaution, when the tribes of Reuben and of Gad erected an altar on the banks of Jordan [Note: Jos_22:9-34.]! — — — On the other hand, what evils were avoided, when Paul explained his sentiments in the first instance privately to the elders of Jerusalem, instead of exciting prejudice and clamour by a hasty and indiscriminate avowal of them in public [Note: Gal_2:2.]! It is thus that we should act with all possible circumspection, not only avoiding evil, but “abstaining as much as possible from the very appearance of it [Note: 1Th_5:22.];” and not only doing good, but endeavouring to prevent “our good from being evil spoken of [Note: Rom_14:16.].”]
The import of the answer given to it—
[This answer is not to be understood as a connivance at what was evil, but as an acknowledgment that Naaman might expect the divine blessing whilst pursuing the conduct he had proposed. Can we imagine that Naaman at that moment saw the thing to be evil, and yet desired a dispensation to commit it? Did he, at the very moment that he was rejecting all false gods, and acknowledging Jehovah as the only true God, and determining to build an altar to Jehovah in his own country, and desiring earth from Jehovah’s land to build it upon, did he then, I say, at that moment ask for a licence to play the hypocrite? and can we suppose that he would confess such an intention to Elisha, and ask his sanction to it? or can we imagine that Elisha, knowing this, would approve of it, or give an evasive answer, instead of reprobating such impiety? Assuredly not: the request itself, as made on that occasion, must of necessity have proceeded from an upright mind; and the prophet’s concession is an indisputable proof, that the request, made under those particular circumstances, was approved by him. Elisha saw that Naaman was upright: he knew that the bowing or not bowing was a matter of indifference in itself; and that, where it was not done as an act of dissimulation, nor was likely to be mistaken by others as an act of worship, it might be done with a good conscience; more especially as it was accompanied with a public disavowal of all regard for idols; and arose only out of the accidental circumstance of the king leaning on his hand at those seasons. In this view of the subject, the prophet did not hesitate to say to him, “Go in peace.”]
Such, we are persuaded, was the concession made. Let us now proceed to consider,
The instruction to be gathered from it—
The more carefully we examine this concession, the more instructive will it be found. We may learn from it,
How to determine the quality of doubtful actions—
[Many actions, such as observing of holy days, or eating meats offered to idols, are indifferent in themselves, and may be good or evil, according to circumstances. Two things, then, are to be inquired into, namely, The circumstances under which they are done; and, the principles from which they flow.
Had Naaman acted from a love to the world, or from a fear of man, his conduct would have been highly criminal: or, if by accommodating himself to the notions of the king he would have cast a stumbling-block before others, he would have sinned in doing it: but with his views, and under his circumstances, his conduct was wholly unexceptionable.
In this sentiment we are confirmed by the conduct of St. Paul. St. Paul, when taking Timothy with him as a fellow-labourer, circumcised him in order to remove the prejudices of the Jews, who would not otherwise have received him on account of his father being a Greek: but, when required to circumcise Titus, he refused, and would on no account give way; because a compliance in that case was demanded as a necessary conformity with the Mosaic law, which was now abolished. In both these cases he acted right, because of the difference of the circumstances under which he acted. So, when he “became all things to all men,” he acted right, as well in conforming to legal observances as in abstaining from them, because his principle was right [Note: Act_21:22-26 and 1Co_9:19-22.]: whilst Peter, on the contrary, sinned in a very grievous manner by conforming to the Jewish prejudices, because he acted from fear, and not from love. We do not mean to say, that every action which proceeds from a good principle, is therefore right; for, no principle, however good, can sanctify a bad action, though a bad principle will vitiate the best of actions [Note: See Hag_2:12-13.]: but an investigation of the principle from which an action flows, accompanied with an attention to the circumstances under which it is done, will serve as the best clew whereby to find what is really good, and to distinguish it from all specious and delusive appearances.]
How to act in doubtful cases—
[Circumstances must sometimes arise, wherein it is difficult to draw the precise line between good and evil: and in all such cases we shall do well to consult those, whose deeper knowledge, and exalted piety, and more enlarged experience qualify them for the office of guiding others. We are ourselves liable to be biased by passion or interest; and are therefore oftentimes too partial judges in our own cause. Another person, divested of all such feelings, can generally see more clearly where the path of duty lies. We shall always therefore do well to distrust ourselves, and to take advice of others [Note: See how the Church of old acted, Act_15:1-2.]: but, above all, we should take counsel of the Lord. He has promised, that “the meek he will guide in judgment, the meek he will teach his way:” and, though we are not to expect a voice from heaven to instruct us, or a pillar of fire to go before us, yet may we hope for such an influence of his Spirit as shall rectify our views, and be, in effect, an accomplishment of that promise, “Thou shalt hear a voice behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left [Note: Isa_30:21.].”
If, after much deliberation we cannot make up our minds, it is best to pause, till we see our way more clear. The commandments given us by God himself on this point, are very express: “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind:” “Happy is the man who condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth; for he that doubteth is damned (condemned) if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith, is sin [Note: Rom_14:5; Rom_14:22-23.].” But, if we are upright in our minds, and inquire of others, not to get a sanction to our own wishes, but to obtain direction from the Lord, we shall certainly not be left materially to err; and for the most part, we shall at all events enjoy the “testimony of our own consciences, that with simplicity and godly sincerity we have had our conversation in the world [Note: 2Co_1:12.].”]
How to deal with tender consciences—
[The prophet did not begin to perplex the mind of Naaman with nice distinctions; but, seeing the integrity of his heart, encouraged him to proceed; not doubting but that, as occasions arose, God himself would “guide him into all truth.” Thus should we also deal with young converts [Note: Rom_14:1.]: we should feed them with milk, and not with meat, which, on account of their unskilfulness in the word of righteousness, they would not be able to digest [Note: Joh_16:12; 1Co_3:2; Heb_5:11-14.]. There may be many things proper for them both to know and do at a future period, which, under their present circumstances, need not be imparted, and are not required. We should therefore deal tenderly towards them, being careful not to lay upon them any unnecessary burthen, or exact of them any unnecessary labours; lest we “break the bruised reed, and quench the smoking flax:” our endeavour rather must be to “lift up the hands that hang down, and to strengthen the feeble knees, and to make straight paths for their feet, that the lame may not be turned out of the way, but may rather be healed [Note: Heb_12:12-13.].” This was our Lord’s method [Note: Mat_9:14-17.] — — — and an attention to it is of infinite importance in all who would be truly serviceable in the Church of Christ.]
Lest this subject be misunderstood, we shall conclude with answering the following questions:
May we ever do evil that good may come?
[No: to entertain such a thought were horrible impiety: and if any man impute it to us, we say with St. Paul, that “his damnation is just [Note: Rom_3:8.].” But still we must repeat what we said before, that things which would be evil under some circumstances, may not be so under others; and that whilst the question itself can admit of no doubt, the application of it may: and we ought not either to judge our stronger, or despise our weaker, brethren, because they do not see every thing with our eyes [Note: Rom_14:3-6.]; for both the one and the other may be accepted before God, whilst we for our uncharitableness are hateful in his sight [Note: Rom_14:10; Rom_14:18.].]
May we from regard to any considerations of ease or interest act contrary to our conscience?
[No: conscience is God’s vicegerent in the soul, and we must at all events obey its voice. We must rather die than violate its dictates. Like Daniel and the Hebrew youths, we must be firm and immovable. If a man err, it will never be imputed to him as evil that he followed his conscience, but that he did not take care to have his conscience better informed. We must use all possible means to get clear views of God’s mind and will; and, having done that, must then act according to our convictions, omitting nothing that conscience requires, and allowing nothing that conscience condemns. The one endeavour of our lives must be to “walk in all good conscience before God,” and to “keep a conscience void of offence towards God and man.”]
May we on any account forbear to confess Christ?
[No: we must shew, before all, our love to the God of Israel, and our communion with his people. In every place where we go, we must erect an altar to our God and Saviour. “If on any account we are ashamed of him, he will be ashamed of us;” and, “if we deny him, he will deny us.” Nevertheless we are not called to throw up our situations in life, because there is some difficulty in filling them aright: we are rather called to approve ourselves to God in those situations, and to fill them to the glory of his name. We must indeed take care that we are not led into any sinful compliances in order to retain our honours or emoluments; but we must avail ourselves of our situations to honour God, and to benefit mankind.]