In the midst of great political convulsions, of a shaking of nations and kingdoms, Jehovah had manifested His goodness to His people by sending down a blessing upon their flocks and their fields. The folds were full of sheep, the valleys stood so thick with corn that they laughed and sang; the garners were filled with all manner of store. Peace had been given to Zion as well as plenty. A year of blessing, temporal and spiritual, had been “crowned” by a secure provision against the drought and famine which had at one time threatened the chosen people.
“Thou hast set a crown upon the year of thy goodness.” Such is the literal rendering of the text. God is represented as setting the crown of completeness and perfection upon a long process. In the previous verses we have a graphic picture of how the grain is prepared. We see the plough at work, scooping out furrows and turning up ridges by one and the same process: and the Divine Co-operator dealing with both according to need and capacity. The furrows are naturally receptive of the streams which flow in abundance from those upper and invisible channels of God which are full of water; and what they thus receive, they hold and convey to the roots of the young plants. The turned-up ridges need to be settled down and closed well in upon the precious seed which they have received. The same rain that does the one does the other: fills the furrows and settles the ridges. Divine agriculture is economic of means, various in adaptations. But soon the surface becomes encrusted, and might imprison the tender blade, did not the gentler after-showers with their myriad drops come to soften the soil and make it easily permeable. And so, as eyes of wonder look on, and discreet judgment calculates how many dangers have been passed as the green crop carpets the earth, devotion exclaims, “The sprouting thereof thou dost bless.”
God crowns the world of men as well as the world of nature. Human life and character and experience have their supreme culminating moments. Love comes to crown the solitary life. Success comes to crown legitimate ambition—not forgetting that there may be a true success in honourable failure. Influence comes to crown character. Friendship comes to crown the longings of the heart. Trust and confidence and admiration come to crown the life lived in honest toil, and with a single eye to the common welfare. But the culmination is a process: the crown is sometimes long deferred. It is deferred in nature, yet experience has taught us to expect it. It looks as if nothing were being done during the dreary, sterile months of winter. The earth seems to be dead, and God appears to have withdrawn. Yet if our hearing were acute enough, we might lay our ear to the ground in December and hear the pulse still beating in that mighty bosom, and by and by we shall behold again the riotous life of spring. We must not despond when there is a winter season in our mental growth, in our spiritual experience, in our church life. In these higher regions, the crown is often long withheld. But if a man is all the time reading, observing, studying, thinking, though there be no immediate visible result, there will come a moment of rapturous emancipation when he realizes that cold fetters, as it were, have fallen from his brain, and left him free to enter upon a richer and riper life of understanding. God has crowned the intellectual year.
Tennyson was in his 81st year when he wrote “Crossing the Bar.” He showed the poem to his son, who exclaimed, “That is the crown of your life’s work.” “It came in a moment,” was the aged poet’s reply. Yes, but however instantaneous was the inspiration, the hymn had behind it a lifetime of careful, painstaking, even fastidious work.
Marcus Dods was a probationer for six years before being called to Renfield Church, Glasgow. During these years of waiting he was sometimes so discouraged as to think of giving up the ministry altogether. In a letter to his sister he wrote: “Do these two years and more waiting not show that I am seeking my work in the wrong direction, or why do they not show this, or how long would show this? Possibly you may say, ‘Wait till some evident call to some other work arises’; but then, of course, evident calls enough would soon arise were I to put myself in the way of them, e.g., were I to go along to Clark the publisher and ask him for some work, or go out to Harvey of Merchiston and ask him for some; whereas, so long as I keep myself back from such openings they are not a tenth part so likely to arise. But apart from growlery, let me give you a problem. I will give it you in the concrete, as being easier stated and easier apprehended. Is it right of me to wait and see whether I get a call or no, and let this decide whether I ought or ought not to take a charge? To me it seems not (though it’s just what I’m doing), and on this ground, because in fact we find that God has often suffered men to enter the Church who were not worthy—because, that is, the call of the people does not always represent the call of God.” He was afterwards Professor of Exegesis and Principal of the New College, Edinburgh.1 [Note: Early Letters of Marcus Dods, 198.]
The harvest crown comes as the reward of human labour. Man is called to be a co-worker with God. The sun and the rain may do their best, and the earth yield all its quickening powers, but the harvest would be but a heap of wild and tangled weeds without the constant work and toil of man. The earth will show its wondrous fecundity. Every seed that drops into its bosom must grow or die, and it is man’s part to curb the wild extravagance of nature, to destroy that which is mere weed or worthless, in order that there may be room for the good to grow and ripen. God gives little even in nature without our toil; He never gives a rich and bounteous harvest unless we give our work, and care, and watchful supervision over its growth.
The world is but a great harvest-field, in which, each in his own place, we are called forth to take our part, and to do our share of labour. Neither by the structure of our nature, nor by the constitution of society, is there any room for the idler, or any possibility of true enjoyment and happiness without work. If we want to be truly happy, to attain in any measure to the real use and enjoyment of life, work of some kind we must have. There ought to be no play without work. No man is entitled to enjoyment who does not purchase it by labour. The sweetest holiday is that which we have earned by strenuous application. God has so made us that we must find our pleasure either in working, or as the reward of working.
There are certain countries of such tropical luxuriance and fertility that you have only to tickle the earth with a hoe, and she laughs with a harvest. But you do not find the highest type of men where Nature is so kind. There is an enervating kindness. In these Northern lands men have a tussle with the earth to make her yield up her fruits, and they become the stronger for their battle with the elements. But they invariably find that God answers the prayer of their labour. There is a flourishing kitchen garden behind the hotel at Gairloch, reclaimed from the barest and barrenest bit of moorland I ever saw. All that countryside is just wild mountain, bare rock, shaggy heath, and desolate moor; to get a kitchen garden out of such a spot is a triumph. It must have needed some considerable faith to make the attempt, and it was justified. God is always ready to supply if man only has conscience enough to demand. “He is faithful that promised.”1 [Note: W. A. Mursell.]
“My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.” And I work! Say that too. If you destroy the sequence, life loses heart, and joy, and meaning, and value. Swing into line with the eternal energy, be a force among forces, a toiler, a producer, a factor, and life never loses its tone and flavour, its bead or glamour. There is no real taste to bread nor bliss in sleep for the idler. He is the doubter, the sceptic, the unhappy man. His idleness proclaims him diseased and decaying.2 [Note: M. D. Babcock, Thoughts for Every-Day Living, 15.]
Get leave to work
In this world—’tis the best you get at all;
For God, in cursing, gives us better gifts
Than men in benediction. God says, “Sweat
For foreheads,” men say “crowns,” and so we are crowned,
Aye, gashed by some tormenting circle of steel
Which snaps with a secret spring. Get work, get work;
Be sure ’tis better than what you work to get.3 [Note: E. B. Browning.]
And yet the harvest is the gift of God, and should link man to God. Man can only do a little; he ploughs and sows, and makes what preparation he can, and then he has to sit down and wait. He can hasten nothing. If he goes out and waves his hands magically over the brown furrows, nothing happens; if he stamps and rages, he does but reveal his impatience, and emphasize his own impotence. He must work, and then he must wait; and there is something profoundly religious and infinitely suggestive in that waiting. What is he waiting for? God. For aught we know, God could do the work instantly; the harvest might follow immediately upon the seed-sowing, like the genii in the fairy tale. God could bring the gift at once on man’s asking. But our world is not the world of the Arabian Nights. God chooses to wait on man’s co-operation. He allows him to do so much that man is tempted to suppose that he is himself the author of the whole process of production. But man has not cleared up the mystery of growth by calling it Evolution. Whatever scientific explanation the human mind can offer of a harvest-field, the element of mystery remains precisely where it was before, and it is that element of mystery that makes us fall down and worship; it is that element of mystery that fills us with a wonder akin to prayer; it is that element of mystery that turns every flower into an altar, and makes a sanctuary of every cornfield. God thus keeps His hold of us by the persistence of the mysterious element in things. If we could explain the harvest, we could explain God, and our fairest vision would fade into the light of common day.
In harvest time the Greek saw the good goddess Ceres bearing her golden sheaves; the modern farmer too frequently sees only the result of his own knowledge, or of the latest patent manure. We pity the poor heathen Greek; ought we not rather to pity ourselves?1 [Note: H. J. Wilmot-Buxton.]
The seed was spread in the furrowed earth,
And nurtured long in the gloom it lay,
Till the beckoning hours led on its birth
And drew it up to the laughing day.
The young spring soothed and cherished the blade,
And summer ’stablished the stately stem,
And the Lord was glad of the thing He’d made,
The fair green ears and the fruit of them.
Summer had worked her will, and past
With her world of green, and autumn arose
And over the prospering tillage cast
A glory of change; the marshalled rows
Of bearded barley and four-square wheat
And pale oats, bearing a hundredfold,
Ripened under her shapely feet,
And out of the green ear grew the gold.
God, how wonderful this the thing,
The new-old miracle Thou hast done,
This proud triumphant fashioning,
Through rains and wind and shine of the sun,
Of ripe and rich abundance, borne
To-day to the sheltering homes of men;
For us Thy Spirit among the corn
Has moved, and one has grown as ten.1 [Note: J. Drinkwater, Poems of Men and Hours, 24.]
The crown of harvest is woven in the loom of winter. Out of December comes June. Out of the Cross is fashioned the Crown. Perpetual summer would be loss unutterable. Perpetual summer would be perpetual mockery. There is no greenness of the grass in June unless there be the chillness of November. God needs the one if He would make the other; fashions the glory out of the decay; lays the field under the grip of ice that it may be golden with the waving grain.
If any one should ask me where I have seen, in the course of my journeyings, the freshest verdure and the greenest grass, I think I might surprise you with my answer. I have seen the tenderest foliage where the fire has recently swept through the forest. Whether it was because of the contrast provided by the blackened timbers or not, I cannot say, but the truth is I never saw such tender green as springs amongst the blackened embers of the forest fire. Certain it is I have never seen such graces as those that spring when the tribulation has passed by. Oh! what a scorching flame it was; but the grass grows green there, and the flowers spring tender there by reason of the fire. There was a soil prepared which has suited the tender growth. Thank God for the tribulation that makes us greener and tenderer in consequence.2 [Note: Thomas Spurgeon.]
I suppose there are many of us who are lovers of the Tweed. It is so beautiful, that river Tweed, and is so haunted by a hundred memories. And yet that river, in whose gentle murmuring we catch the echo of unforgotten voices, rises where everything is bleak and bare. There is no beauty that we should desire it there. There is only the desolate and lonely moor. There is no song, no shadowing of tree, no gathering of the great dead beside its waters. Out of that winter God has made its summer, and to that summer come a thousand pilgrims, who know not, for they have never seen, the bleak and barren region of its rise.1 [Note: G. H. Morrison, The Afterglow of God, 94.]
Christ was content to have His crown of glory fashioned in agony. He took to Himself a crown of thorns. He came to wear it, and He would have no other. After the miracle of the loaves the people would have crowned Him with an earthly crown, and He fled from them. He was afraid of them. He hid Himself in a quiet place. They wanted to give Him an honour He could not accept. They wanted to put around His brow the golden circlet of a brief popularity and a civic leadership. But He would not have it. There was a crown of thorns waiting for Him, and He would not be defrauded of it. There was a coronation day coming, and it must not be anticipated. He was going by a path that few would be willing to follow—unto an honour that few would be wishful to win. Oh, who is strong enough and brave enough to go on as Christ went treading underfoot the golden crown of gain and reaching out after the thorny crown of sacrifice? He chose between the crown that glitters and the crown that wounds. He refused the one that He might wear the other.2 [Note: P. C. Ainsworth, A Thornless World, 194.]
It was a thorn,
And it stood forlorn
In the burning sunrise land:
A blighted thorn
And at eve and morn
Thus it sighed to the desert sand:
By its beauty’s power,
With a crown of glory is crowned;
No crown have I;
For a crown I sigh,
For a crown that I have not found.
Sad thorn, why grieve?
Thou a crown shalt weave,
But not for a maiden to wear;
That crown shall shine
When all crowns save thine
With the glory they gave are gone.
For thorn, my thorn,
Thy crown shall be worn
By the King of Sorrows alone.1 [Note: Owen Meredith.]
The crown of harvest is not for ornament and beauty only, but for utility and beneficence. The ripe grain becomes the seed of future harvests. The husbandman takes of his best corn, safe in his granary, and casts it into the earth. He sacrifices what is precious to him for the sake of the harvest in the future. So it is with those who work for worldly success. They sacrifice time, rest, ease, comfort; they deny themselves pleasure now that they may reap a rich harvest in the end. So must it be with those who sow for eternity. They must deny themselves, they must sow in tears, they must go forth weeping and bearing this good seed. Jesus, our Master, sowed in tears, sowed in the agony and bloody sweat. He sacrificed Himself that He might gather the glorious harvest of a world redeemed, of a Church bought with His Precious Blood. He gave up His Sacred Body, like a seed to be bruised and crushed by cruel hands, and to be sown in the furrow of the grave. But the harvest came. That Body sown in the weakness of death was raised in the power of the resurrection, and so Jesus reaped the harvest for Himself and for us His people.
The story of a night of seemingly fruitless toil, which resulted in great blessing, is retold in the Illustrated Missionary News. Miss Harris, of Medak, in India, utterly tired out, was one evening about to return home, when the son of the head-man of an important village, who had been poisoned, was hurriedly brought into the compound. She saw it was impossible to save him, and yet she kept the night vigil, rendering him the most menial service—service hardly fit for the village scavenger. The father and brothers watched all the time, and although the missionary returned home utterly spent next morning, feeling as if nothing had been accomplished, the chief and his family, as they watched, had judged between Hinduism and the Gospel of Christ, and within six months the whole of the large family of the village chief was baptized; soon a church and school were founded in the village, and from the chief’s family there are now (so runs the encouraging report) no fewer than ten evangelists and Bible-women.
A Sower went forth to sow;
His eyes were dark with woe;
He crushed the flowers beneath his feet,
Nor smelt their perfume, warm and sweet,
That prayed for pity everywhere.
He came to a field that was harried
By iron, and to heaven laid bare;
He shook the seed that he carried
O’er that brown and bladeless place.
He shook it, as God shakes the hail
O’er a doomed land,
When lightnings interlace
The sky and the earth, and his wand
Of love is a thunder-flail.
Thus did that Sower sow;
His seed was human blood,
And tears of women and men.
And I, who near him stood,
Said: “When the crop comes, then
There will be sobbing and sighing,
Weeping and wailing and crying,
Flame, and ashes, and woe.”
It was an autumn day
When next I went that way.
And what, think you, did I see?
What was it that I heard,
What music was in the air?
The song of a sweet-voiced bird?
Nay—but the songs of many,
Thrilled through with praise and prayer.
Of all those voices not any
Were sad of memory;
But a sea of sunlight flowed,
A golden harvest glowed,
And I said: “Thou only art wise,
God of the earth and skies!
And I praise Thee, again and again,
For the Sower whose name is Pain.”1 [Note: R. W. Gilder, The Sower.]
Little (H. W.), Arrows for the King’s Archers, 50.
Mursell (W. A.), Sermons on Special Occasions, 95.
Rylance (J. H.), in The Complete Preacher, ii. 180.