A Sermon by James Lumsden
Isaiah 60:12. For the nation and kingdom that will not serve thee shall perish; yea, those nations shall be utterly wasted.
Even now, after all that has taken place in the preservation and increase of the Church, we sometimes feel it difficult to believe that all opposition to the cause of truth shall yet be crushed, and that all nations will yield hearty and harmonious homage to the Saviour. But it would surely have indicated no ordinary strength of faith in a Jew to have contemplated with steadfast hope such prospects as were opened up to him in the present chapter. Shut up as the Church of God had hitherto been within the narrow confines of Judea, its extension to all lands must have been an idea which nothing less than a divine assurance could have enabled him to entertain.
This assertion of divine judgements, as the means by which the Church’s triumph should be achieved, was not made to the exclusion of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as the chief agency. Even in the chapter before us, His work is evidently implied as the fountain of those means by which the coming glories of the Church shall be realized. The opening verses declare that the reflection from the Church of that “glory of the Lord”, with which it is the work of the Holy Spirit to irradiate her, will penetrate the darkness that covers the earth and attract the Gentiles toward her. But the old testament dispensation was not distinguished as that of the Spirit. The Jews had been familiar with God’s interposition on their behalf by judgement, rather than by grace; and, therefore, when the prophet’s object is to confirm in their minds the hope of enlargement, he selects that agency on which, from past experience, they might more easily depend. We, on the other hand, who live under the dispensation of the Spirit, are more accustomed to refer the bringing in of millennial glory to His agency on the hearts of men than to divine judgements on ungodly nations. Yet, while the former is no doubt the more pleasing object of contemplation, there is on this account a danger of indulging in it too exclusively, and thus of shutting ourselves out from the instruction and warning which God designed that we should receive from His so fully unfolding the prospect of the other.
The text presents to our notice two topics, first, The duty of nations and, second, The punishment by which the neglect of this duty will be avenged.
1. What is here pointed out to be the duty of nations: to serve the Church. It is undoubtedly true that nations are bound to serve Christ. But you will observe that it is the Church which is addressed throughout this chapter; consequently, in this verse also, the prophet’s discourse is directed to it. And it is under the form of serving her that the duty of nations is represented: “The nation and kingdom that will not serve thee“. One mode in which nations must discharge their duty to Christ is specified to be serving His Church. But what precise duty is here devolved upon them?
1. The expression does not imply the supremacy of the Church over the state. It is very plain that it cannot denote the subjection of nations to the Church in things temporal. Scripture represents her authority as exercised only in spiritual matters. Our Saviour put from Him the request that He would arbitrate in a civil question: “Who made Me a judge and a divider over you?” It is equally plain that the text does not ascribe to the Church a dominion over the state in things spiritual. She is forbidden to dictate to the consciences of men. “Not for that”, says the Apostle, “we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy (2 Cor 1:24). She has no power to control either the faith or the conduct of men in spiritual things. She and they are equally placed under the authority of God’s Word, and both are directly addressed by it. Nations are bound to listen to its voice, and when walking most closely by the Word, they are most certain to serve the Church.
2. If the expression does not ascribe to the Church any control over the state, it still more clearly forbids the idea that the state may exercise control over the Church. This, indeed, if it were permitted, would be to reverse the statement of the text – to make it the duty of the Church to serve the nations of the earth. Whatever subjection the Church, both collectively and in her individual members, may give to the state in civil things, she is not only free from this subjection in spiritual matters but is warranted to expect and to claim the service of the state.
3. It is evidently implied here that nations must ascertain which is the Church of Christ – as distinguished from all other societies and all false churches. It is scarcely necessary to remark that nations are here spoken of as acting in their collective capacity and discharging this duty in the same way in which they perform any other national act. If the Church is here spoken of as a society, it is plain that nations are also spoken of as societies and not merely with reference to the separate individuals of whom they are composed. If God knows how to destroy nations without destroying the individuals of whom they consist, it is plain that He has provided a way in which, not the separate individuals merely, but the collective body may both ascertain and obey His will. Accordingly, it is not enough that they serve what they understand to be the Church of Christ. They may have declared it to be the Church, not because its principles are most closely in unison with the will of Christ, but because its character is most in accordance with their own will. If they proceed upon this principle, they will inevitably mistake, or deliberately reject, the Church of God; for it is just because its principles are not in accordance with carnal wisdom or human policy that it is marked out as the Church which is exclusively entitled to the service of the nations. Unless they surrender themselves to the guidance of the Scriptures, they may be most sedulous in doing homage to what they look on as the Church, but are merely doing homage to a human institution.
4. This chapter informs us how this duty to the true Church of Christ is to be discharged. (1.) Nations are to forbear persecution and reproach; they are no longer to disparage her as a merely human society, or to claim her as a creature of the state, but to admit her standing as the Bride of the Lord. “The sons also of them that afflicted thee shall come bending unto thee; and all they that despised thee shall bow themselves down at the soles of thy feet; and they shall call thee, The city of the Lord, The Zion of the Holy One of Israel” (v 14). (2.) The service of nations is to consist in ministering to her of their wealth for the work of the Lord. What else can be meant by such expressions as these: “The abundance of the sea shall be converted unto thee . . . all they from Sheba shall bring gold and incense . . . All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered together unto thee; the rams of Nebaioth shall minister unto thee . . . Thou shalt also suck the milk of the Gentiles, and shalt suck the breast of kings . . . for brass I will bring gold, and for iron I will bring silver.” (3.) The nations are bound to serve the Church by affording her every facility for the work of Christ, and by being careful to avoid placing any obstruction in the way of her either promoting her own purity or extending the knowledge of the gospel. This may be implied in the promise: “I will make thine officers peace, and thine exactors righteousness”. Nations really intent on serving the Church will be in such entire subjection to the Word of God, and so animated by His Spirit, that all their laws and all their power will be consecrated to the cause of Christ, so as to help forward every scriptural effort and aim of the Church.
How very different a view is thus given us of the position of the Church from that which prevails in the world. How frequently has the idea been propounded that the Church is the handmaid of the state, the moral police, the most effective servant of the nation! Kings and parliaments are spoken of as doing some great thing when they bestow on her any notice! How different is the light which Scripture casts on her relation to the nations of the earth! Whatever their splendour and greatness may be, she is presented to us as irradiated with a much higher glory. Their appropriate and most honourable attitude is, not that of looking down upon her with commendation, but looking up to her with profoundest reverence, “bowing themselves down at the soles of her feet”. Their duty to her is not bestowing alms on a beggar, or paying wages to a servant, or recompensing benefits to a friend, but rendering tribute to whom tribute is due. It is only by doing her homage that they can purchase their preservation.
2. The punishment by which the neglect of this duty shall be avenged. “The nation and kingdom that will not serve thee shall perish; yea, those kingdoms shall be utterly wasted.”
The whole chapter evidently points to the future, and consequently this prediction still waits for its fulfilment. But, because the principles of the divine administration are unchangeable, those principles which will distinguish God’s dealings towards the Church then will be those which have regulated all His dealings towards her in the past. We have the plainest evidence of the certainty with which the predicted vengeance will finally fall on the Church’s enemies, not only in His rebuking kings for her sake, but in the literal fulfilment of the threat by utterly wasting the kingdoms that slighted or oppressed her. Egypt, for instance, long had within its borders the tribes of Jacob, then the whole Church of God; but instead of serving, it oppressed them. In punishment of that proud nation’s treatment of His heritage, God visited every dwelling with death and overwhelmed its king and princes and armies in the Red Sea. Babylon was first the invader and then the master of Judah and, though in this it was the specially appointed rod of the Almighty’s anger, inflicting chastisement on His disobedient people, yet His displeasure was awakened by its neglect of their welfare, and it too was “utterly wasted”. “I am very sore displeased”, it is said, “with the heathen that are at ease: for I was but a little displeased,” that is, with the Jews, “and they helped forward the affliction” (Zec 1:15). We find the same principle even in new testament times. The Jews rejected Jesus and refused to acknowledge His disciples as now the Church of God, and to yield to it the appropriate homage. In consequence, they were themselves rejected, and their nation and city desolated. The Roman Empire too persecuted the Church instead of serving it, and therefore all her glory was levelled with the dust, though her poets had predicted that her empire would be eternal and, even to the eye of inspiration, she had appeared “strong exceedingly”.
What God has wrought in these isolated cases, He will yet accomplish on a far greater scale when all the earth shall be the scene of vengeance, and many nations shall in one moment have the cup of trembling put into their hands. In order to consummate the glory of the Church, He will overturn every obstacle. “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come” – the end of their probation, the end at once of affliction to those by whom the gospel is received, and of longsuffering to those by whom it is rejected. By their treatment of His gospel, by their conduct towards His Church, He is to test them and fix their destiny. Nor is it needful, in order to a nation’s entailing on itself heaven’s desolating curse, that it engage in actual persecution of the Church. They who are not attracted by its heavenly lustre, will not be able to repress their bitter enmity. Who does not see how far short a nation may come of the crime of national persecution, and yet incur guilt? To neglect to forward the interests of the Church of God, to create obstructions to her exertions for saving souls – or even to refuse to countenance them – is for a nation to expose itself to vengeance. It may give special facilities for the propagation of error; it may authorise the profanation of the Sabbath; it may smile on vice and diffuse irreligious feeling throughout all parts of its service; and in doing these things it takes its place among the ranks of the enemies of God. He does not know neutrality to His cause among nations any more than among individuals. “He that is not with us is against us.” He demands undivided allegiance and spurns all attempted compromise. The kingdom which He has set up must possess the whole earth. The kingdoms that will not become one with it, it will consume and break in pieces.
The Church’s millennium will not be brought about simply by the peaceful operation of the Spirit in the hearts of men, but will be ushered in amidst “distress of nations with perplexity”. It is enough for us to know that, as on former occasions, God has ample resources for accomplishing all His purposes. We may be assured that the Church will prove to every land, as has been well said, “either the spring of its mercies, or the cause of its destruction”. “The remnant of Jacob shall be among the Gentiles in the midst of many people as a lion among the beasts of the forest, as a young lion among the flocks; who, if he go through, both treadeth down, and teareth in pieces, and none can deliver” (Mic 5:8). Not indeed as if the Church were to lift the sword in battle. Such is not her warfare. “Great is the Holy One of Israel in the midst of thee.” Nations, ignorant of the power or the reality of God’s presence with His Church, have often considered merely her outward state and, contrasting her apparent strength with their own, have concluded that they could easily destroy her and incur no danger.
How often has it been thought, and even boastfully proclaimed, that she must yield as much of her principles as the powers of this world demand! Deceived by such imaginations, they will be ripened for their predicted punishment. God, in order to confirm His people’s confidence, has revealed that they shall fall, like the hosts of Midian, by one another’s hands, or be overthrown, like Egypt, by direct, though not equally miraculous, interpositions of the Almighty’s arm. “I will call for a sword against him throughout all My mountains, saith the Lord God; every man’s hand shall be against his brother. And I will plead against him with pestilence and with blood; and I will rain upon him, and upon his bands, and upon the many people that are with him, an overflowing rain, and great hailstones, fire and brimstone. Thus will I magnify Myself and sanctify Myself; and I will be known in the eyes of many nations; and they shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezek 38:21-23). The hour of their most confident exultation will be the prelude of their final overthrow, and of the Church’s complete deliverance.
How anxious then ought we to be to discharge faithfully the duty which, as the Church of Christ, we owe to the sinful nations of the earth? How shall they know where safety is to be found save through our instrumentality? The Church is God’s ordained means for the conversion of souls, for the salvation of the world. From her must go forth the power that will subdue, the knowledge that will illuminate, and the peace that will adorn the farthest outskirts of disordered humanity. We do well to send them Bibles and ministers, to ply them with gospel offers and opportunities. For how can they believe with out hearing, and how can they hear without a preacher? But it is a very solemn thought, that all these ordinances may only ripen them for vengeance, may be only the preaching of the gospel “for a witness” – a witness to the righteousness of their condemnation for having rejected the offer of Christ. The preaching of the gospel is not always “a savour of life unto life”; it is often a “savour of death unto death”. It is only the Spirit who can give the Word a saving efficacy. It is vain therefore to send Bibles and ministers for the salvation of souls unless the Spirit be sent along with them.
And how can we send the Spirit? Have we power to command His operations? Yes; God has given this power to men. Prayer is the only means of bringing down the Spirit. What urgent need then to pray for the outpouring of the Spirit on every land of gospel privilege! We leave our duty half-performed if we do not follow missionaries and Bibles with unceasing, earnest prayer. God may, indeed, in His sovereign grace, send forth the Spirit in converting efficacy and make the Bibles and the missionaries that have been sent forth by prayerless men “the savour of life unto life”; but it is an expectation which we are not warranted to entertain. While He promises that the Spirit shall be poured out in more abundant measure than the Church has yet experienced, He adds, “I will yet for this be enquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them”. What strong encouragement to prayer for the Spirit do such promises contain!
Let us also learn the duty which, as the Church of Christ, we owe to our own nation. It is not necessary for me to prove that, as a nation, we have committed the very sin here denounced, or remind you that it has been committed with special bearing on ourselves as a Church of Christ in our relation to the state. (2) I need not point out how the claim to control, and the refusal to serve, the Church has been preceded and accompanied, with sad consistency, by ministering of the nation’s wealth to both popish and pagan idolatry, by indifference to the cry of oppressed believers in foreign lands, by legalising vice, by sanctioning larger inroads on the Sabbath’s rest, and by impeding the efforts of the Church. Who does not see that our sins, committed after ages of unexampled privilege, cry loudly to the avenger of His heritage? But the time of God’s recompense to our nation for the controversy of Zion has not yet come. The time of longsuffering is a time of probation during which repentance may avail – and has availed, as in the case of Nineveh – to avert impending judgement. What we are bound ultimately to aim at is that the nation should, in the highest sense of the expression, “serve the church”. In looking forward to this, we are seeking not the aggrandisement of the church, but the safety of the nation.
This will be characteristic of nations in millennial times; and, as our text assures us, less than this will not afford them a passport to the millennial state or save them from the judgements which precede it. We are to aim at it as the natural result of a spiritual awakening and reformation among all classes of the people. Only the regeneration of the individuals of whom the nation is composed can be expected to enable the national mind to perceive the spiritual standing of the Church, and to produce a real consecration of national power to the interests of the Redeemer’s kingdom. And when we consider that the safety of this land depends on us, in a sense, more than upon the skill of statesmen and the might of armies, what manner of men should this make us in all holy activity, whether as ministers or as private Christians! Let us become more earnest and abundant in prayer till we see the Spirit poured out as floods on the dry ground. Let us cultivate in ourselves, as individuals and as a Church, greater purity and spirituality, that we may indeed be “living epistles of Christ, known and read of all men”. Let us strive after clearer views of the Saviour’s glory that we may reflect “the light of the Lord” with such brilliance that the Gentiles may come to our light and kings to the brightness of our rising.
For our own sakes individually, as well as for the sake of the nation, we ought not to forget that the course of safety is the service of God. This is not only true with reference to the final salvation of the soul, but also generally in the arrangements of providence on earth. The troubles of the righteous are not ordinarily so numerous or so sharp as those of the ungodly, for godliness has promise of the life that now is as well as of that which is to come. Even seasons of persecution, when the wicked triumph, are not an exception to this rule, for believers receive abundant recompense in spiritual consolation, and persecution is invariably followed by judgements on the persecutors. “The rod of the wicked shall not rest on the lot of the righteous, lest the righteous” be induced to “put forth their hands unto iniquity”. The bondage of the Israelites in Egypt was bitter, but the punishment which overtook their oppressors was death. The fiery trials which yet await the Church will be followed by the tremendous judgements which the text predicts. The Church will survive the former, but the wicked will be destroyed by the latter.
How vain then, as well as sinful, for men to think of saving their lives, or protecting their earthly interests, by abandoning the afflicted church, and giving up persecuted principles. In doing so, they most certainly incur the very loss which they dread. They may not persecute the people of God, they may join a communion as near in principle to that which they have left as the world will tolerate; but they have crossed the line which separates those who are not ashamed of Christ and His words from those who are hastening the nation’s doom. “He that saveth his life shall lose it” in the most strict and literal sense, when the Lord “cometh out of His place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity, [when] the earth shall disclose her blood, and shall no more cover her slain”.
Let us, then, learn that steadfastness in faith and continuance in holiness are the means of safety. We do not know what God may have in store for our guilty land, whether a time of favour or of judgement. We ought to resign this in patience to divine sovereignty and be ready to say, “Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Thy sight”. If, on the one hand, our land is saved, this will be only through the intercession and labours of God’s people; and if, on the other hand, His judgements do come, they will be discriminating, just as the Israelites were passed over by the angel of death.
How urgently, then, do the alternatives of impending ruin and the hope of national preservation call on us to labour efficiently, and to pray earnestly, while yet it is day. The time may come when the voice of intercession will be hushed by the stern command, “Pray not for this people for their good”, when there will be presented to the Church the dreary spectacle of the nation shut up in hopeless impenitence to its inevitable doom. How melancholy will be the contemplation if the guilt of this impenitence is wholly chargeable upon the nation! But how agonizing the reflection if it be chargeable equally upon the nation and the Church!
1. This sermon, now abridged, was preached before the Free Synod of Angus and Mearns, on 22 October 1844. It is reprinted from The Free Church Pulpit, vol 1. Lumsden (1810-1875) was Disruption minister of Barry, north of Dundee. He later became Professor of Systematic Theology in the Free Church College in Aberdeen.
2. The reference is to the events which gave rise to the Disruption of 1843.