The picture brought before us is that of a man setting off in the morning to go to the city, and at nightfall he is back approximately where he began – only now he is hungry and thirsty, dusty and quite worn out. He has wandered the whole day long and exhausted himself for nothing, and he is termed foolish. This is the picture of many and I am sure they are in this congregation this evening. They would probably resent being called fools, although the fact is that, according to their spiritual state, they are fools, because they are engaged in labour that is utterly foolish.
Let us look at three matters. Firstly, the purpose of the labour, to go to the city. We will also look into the matter of what city this is. Secondly, it is vain and exhausting labour; it “wearieth every one of them”. Thirdly, the way which the foolish miss; progress along it is not exhausting, neither is it vain.
1. The purpose of the labour. It was to go to the city. In verse 10, Solomon states the same general truth under a different figure: “If the iron be blunt, and he do not whet the edge, then must he put to more strength: but wisdom is profitable to direct”. Lack of wisdom will leave a woodcutter very weary chopping with a blunt axe. It is a case of labour lost for lack of wisdom. The Word of God is not a manual of advice as to the best way of tackling the tasks of everyday life; so we can assume that something spiritual lies beneath such parts of the Word of God. And so it is here, for Scripture abounds in references to a city which it becomes all men to seek out and to enter. Take for instance Psalm 107:7: “That they might to a city go, wherein they might abide”. Take Hebrews 11, where there are references to this city “which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (v 10). Again: “Here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come” (Heb 13:14). The city, obviously, is a very desirable residence for people in our condition.
In Old Testament times, life in a city contrasted with the restless and often-comfortless existence of the tent-dweller, a nomad always on the move. This was true of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It contrasted with the more settled, but insecure, life of people in open villages, who were exposed to attacks by robbers. But the city was a large, strong community within walls, well provisioned and well watered. These ancient cities also – and this is very important – had at their heart a sanctuary with an altar. That applied to the cities of the heathen as well as to those of the Jews. David states:
“Till for the Lord a place I find, where He may make abode,
a place of habitation for Jacob’s mighty God” (Ps 132:5).
When he came to reign in Jerusalem, his mind turned to this great matter: to bring the tabernacle into his capital city.
Abraham left a great, prosperous city, Ur of the Chaldees, to go to a land which God would give him. Here was a man whose situation was good, but he suddenly found himself faced with the God of glory, and receiving instructions to leave his city and family. And he obeyed. We are given no details of what happened. Was it the Son of God, in one of His pre-incarnation appearances as the Angel of the covenant, who came to Abraham and not only gave him these instructions, but began a great change in his whole life, outlook and spirit? What we know from the Word is that Abraham went forth as a man of faith, and this was accounted to him for righteousness. His life brings before us a man who was bound to the Most High, so much so that he is called “the friend of God” (Jas 2:23). The glory of God in the mind of Abraham was so great that he counted everything else but loss for the favour of this great God of eternity. To some extent there is an element of this in every conversion: God making Himself known as the God of glory, so that what this person knows from that moment onwards is that God is God, that there is none to compare with Him, that He is the Creator of the ends of the earth, who fainteth not neither is weary, and that He is infinitely holy, infinitely righteous, infinitely true and infinitely gracious.
Abraham came at last to Canaan, but he had no desire to stay in any of its cities. He was content to be a sojourner and a tent-dweller in the land of promise, expecting afterwards to dwell in a superior city, in a heavenly country. “He looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb 11:10). Isaac and Jacob, his son and grandson, had the same hope; so too had all others who believed in God, the God of glory. Of course, not only was He the God of glory, but a Saviour. He was the One who in Eden promised our first parents that a great Deliverer from sin and misery would come into this world, who would be the seed of the woman and would bruise the serpent’s head, at the expense of the bruising of His own heel. The patriarchs all knew that the God of glory had promised them a Saviour from sin and misery. They lived in faith that in due time God would send this great Deliverer into the world.
David in his Psalms sang of a city with features that mark it as something belonging to a better world: “Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God” (87:3). Isaiah prophesied of such a city: “We have a strong city; salvation will God appoint for walls and bulwarks (26:1). Zechariah describes the new Jerusalem: “Jerusalem shall be inhabited as towns without walls for the multitude of men and cattle therein: For I, saith the Lord, will be unto her a wall of fire round about, and will be the glory in the midst of her” (2:4,5). We may pass on to Revelation, with its picture of the heavenly Jerusalem, which has no need either of the temple, or of the sun, because God’s presence is there in the fullest sense.
Coming away from biblical times to ourselves here this evening, I take it that we all belong to the visible Church. In it we have the Word of God as the great revelation of His being, character and will; we have the ordinances of religion in which the truths of that Word are set forth. Now where is the person who thinks in the least about religion who does not cherish a hope of being in heaven at last? This is the final destination. When salvation is set forth, it is made clear that it is to have heaven as its end – that blessed, eternal city of God, transcending in its perfections every city in this world. As I am inclined to see it, if we acknowledge that we have souls, that we are sinners, and that salvation is set before us in the Bible, do we not, even occasionally, have some hope of heaven at last? Otherwise what would be the point of remaining in the visible Church? Outside these walls there are people who have no place at all for the Christian religion, or for any religion. Heaven means nothing to them, but you do have thoughts of heaven, and this is presented to you especially in the preaching of the Word. You cannot get away from the fact that the end of these things is either heaven or eternal death. The question is, What route are we taking? By what means do we hope to reach the heaven that is revealed in the Word of God?2. The way the foolish take to go to the city is vain and exhausting. The text speaks not only of a city, but also of a way to it and of a person who wandered uselessly instead of taking the right way. I have tried to point out that this city is heaven and I assume that in the visible Church everyone has some hope of being at last in heaven, even if that hope be very little indulged. Yet they have heard enough about a lost eternity to make it clear that it is a place to be avoided. So the alternative is heaven, and they have their own thoughts about how to get there. But if they take the wrong way, a way that will never lead them to it, that is labour lost. Many, of course, have no real conception of what heaven is, but the ways they follow, every one of them, are vain and laborious. They are vain inasmuch as they will never bring the person to the heaven of God; they are laborious inasmuch as they involve a certain amount of thought, activity and perhaps of concern.
The fact is that many do take a wrong road. In the Book of Proverbs this verse is found twice: “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (14:12,16:25); and I take it that this means it is a very important statement. Of course there are reasons why people follow wrong ways whose end will certainly be death. There is one reason that is applicable to all: these people mistake the nature of this city and the direction in which it lies; they have wrong ideas of heaven. Men naturally do not look upon heaven as a city that can be entered only through a Mediator; they do not accept that it is impossible for them to come into God’s presence as they are, because they are alienated from God and condemned. This is part of their foolishness, a lack of judgement in spiritual matters which springs from the blank ignorance of a sinful heart. That ignorance is inevitable in the carnal mind, which is enmity against God and pre-occupied with the things of time and sense. The person in that state of mind; the carnally-minded person, the spiritually-ignorant person, just cannot know what spiritual things are; he or she is quite ignorant of these things.
You may say, Well, we can think about heaven and about hell; we can think about the fact that there is a God; we can believe that there is a Saviour Jesus Christ; we can accept that there is a Holy Spirit. But what is the outcome of all this thinking? It results in the carnally-minded coming, Sabbath after Sabbath, to the worship of God, where these spiritual realities are set before them. They assume that they have accepted these teachings. At any rate, as they suppose, they haven’t resisted them. Then the sermon comes to an end; they go out of the Church and meet their friends, and everything has gone. They won’t deny that they are sinners; they have heard that the wages of sin is death, that there is only one way to escape these wages – by fleeing from divine wrath to Christ the only Saviour. But they are sinners still; there is no thought about repentance, no thought about faith in Jesus Christ, no thought about heaven or hell, no thought about the difference between time and eternity. Their thoughts are concentrated on what they are going to do tonight or tomorrow. They may perhaps include the prayer meeting in their planning, and the services next Sabbath, but these are just additions to what, as far as they are concerned, are the real things of this life. These are: What we shall eat and what we shall drink and wherewithal we shall be clothed, and a host of other matters – all of which have to do with time and sense, but nothing to do with spiritual matters or the gospel, nothing to do with God or the Lord Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit, and nothing to do with heaven or hell.
People can spend a lifetime attending the means of grace and acknowledging, as they think, the truth that is set before them and yet remain unaffected. This world of time and sense is everything to them, in spite of all that they have read and heard about the eternal world, about the fearful fact of everlasting death if they do not repent of sin and if they go on despising Christ and rejecting the means of salvation. Whatever intellectual conception they may have of them, these things are just not known to them. And they are not concerned about their ignorance. There is the end of life, of course, whenever that may be – although they put that as far away as possible – and it might be as well, they tell themselves, to think about going to heaven.
People can become concerned about the affairs of the soul while still in absolute ignorance of spiritual matters; they can come to know that they have a soul, a sinful soul that is condemned to die eternally unless it is saved by Jesus Christ. They give the matter a little thought: There is a city at the end of the way; we had better attach some importance to going to heaven. To the carnal mind it is just a matter of personal effort, as and when the person chooses; and the great facts of sin, sin’s ruin, redemption, regeneration and justification and so on, are notions which are imperfectly understood and in fact not really known. If you quote to such a person: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me” (John 14:6), he does not have the least understanding of what these words of Jesus Christ mean. If there are some desires to be in heaven at last, some wrong way is followed. Once again you see the folly of the sinner; he chooses to travel to the heaven of his imagination by ways that the Scriptures plainly define as foolish, vain and false.
The first way I mention is the natural way that the fallen soul thinks of when under some measure of concern about eternity. It is the way of obedience to God’s law. With sin came unbelief, and it is little wonder that fallen man ignores the Bible’s clear teachings about the uselessness of trying to please God by keeping the moral law. This is an error into which all corrupt branches of the Church of Christ have fallen. Romanism, of course, is deeply steeped in it; they have encouraged this idea that by some well-doing the trouble about sin may be put right. In this day of religious declension, most professing Christians base their hope on personal effort of some kind and that is the teaching in the vast majority of pulpits in this land. A lot of it stems from the fallacious doctrine of the universal fatherhood of God. What the people are taught is that they should live decent, kind, law-abiding Christian lives, that they should do their best and should be neighbourly and helpful to the church. What most professing Christians today are basing their hope upon is that by their good deeds they will get to heaven at last, they will reach the city. It probably comes out most of all at funerals. What has the clergyman to say? “What an example of decent living the person who died was!” There is no word of a Saviour.
The Word of God says, “By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20). And the whole idea of salvation by our own works, by improving our moral condition, by becoming more religious, by giving some thought to getting to heaven, is vain labour if anything is. What actually is in view is to present to God a mountain of deeds – every one of which is sinful in His sight – as a ground of favour to the God of holiness. And you can see just how utterly vain and senseless it is. After the dispersion of Babel, the majority went their own way; they all set up gods of their own, and altars, temples and priests. What you find in all these forms of religion is the attempt to please their gods by sacrifices – always involving animals but sometimes human beings as well. The intention was to please, or to propitiate, an offended deity by these offerings. Most of these people had the sense to know that they were sinners and that offended gods had to be placated by sacrifice in some way.
Today we find the same in a different way; many who bear the Christian name supplement their good works with religion. This doing good in order to please God has to be supplemented with a kind of dependence on the idea of a redemption wrought by Christ – all very vague and certainly nothing to do with the redemption we have been concerned with at this Communion, nothing whatever to do with the Lord Jesus Christ making an offering of Himself to satisfy the justice of God and bring sinners into His favour. This is absolutely ruled out today; it is as much out of keeping with modern thought as the religion of the druids. Of course, Christ comes into it, but usually there is a great vagueness about the whole idea. At its best, this belief does not come up to the requirements of true repentance and personal trust in a Saviour and His ransom. This way of pleasing God comes nowhere near the requirements of God in His Holy Word. What God is setting before sinners is a real redemption, a real Saviour, a divine Saviour. And whatever way of going to heaven dispenses with the truths of God’s Word, with a real redemption and a real Saviour, is wrong and will end in failure.
Another way I mention is the way of hoping that divine mercy will put everything right at last. Again, vagueness is the order of the day; these people have no real knowledge of what God’s mercy is, but they have the idea that there is something in God that may cause Him to overlook anything they have done wrong. They have done their best in their own way, they have not done anything that is seriously wrong, and this vague mercy will dispose of whatever comes short of what ought to be. Of course it is uncovenanted mercy; it is not the mercy of God revealed in the Word of God; this mercy belongs to the imagination of the sinner – because the mercy of God is His kindness towards those in a miserable condition on account of guilt, not on account of the fact that they may die and go to hell. That matter of guilt is essential – the knowledge on the part of the sinner that he or she has acted culpably, that they have done what was contrary to God’s law and that the wages of sin – of even one sin – is death. That was the case in the fall; Adam did what God forbade him to do; it was one sin he committed. Spiritual death followed straight away, and literal death in due course.
This person is thinking of the mercy of God, but not in terms that the Bible sets forth. Again, of course, the universal fatherhood of God enters into it, in my opinion: God is so like a human father; He will be kind to His children; He is not going to punish every fault. That is the sort of mercy people are thinking about – a divine favour which is totally unprincipled and totally divorced from what is clearly revealed in God’s Word: that His law is holy, just and good, and that one breach of that law deserves eternal punishment. But we sinners have reason to be concerned about a lifetime of transgressions of God’s law. This is the fact: the justice of God demands that the law-breaker should be punished. God’s government is not to be disregarded by His creatures – those poor, weak things that He made who are now rising up in rebellion against Him.
All the wrong ways are failures; they afford no ease for conscience, no peace to the mind and no satisfaction to the heart. We have hewn out for ourselves broken cisterns that can hold no water, and when the cracked cisterns of earth cease to yield any pleasure, when body and mind are failing and when there is no divine friend to speak reassuringly about the future, what a pathetic, worn-out appearance these poor travellers present! They are on their way, as they thought, to heaven, but they have blundered every bit of the way. They were mistaken about what heaven is and about the way to it, and at last they are found sinners before a holy and righteous God. That is the person in our text, be it man or woman, young, old or middle-aged, who on one of these wrong ways to the city has found it all vain and exhausting, who is in fact proved to be a fool.
3. The way which the foolish miss. I know people whom you would call good-living, religious people, and one of their ideas is this: heaven is the place where we meet again with the loved ones from whom we have been separated by death. A husband has lost the wife he loved for many years; she has gone to heaven, as he thinks, and there they are going to resume life, only on a happier scale than in this world. There will be no sorrow, no tears, no disappointments, no misery, no sickness, no death. It is just going to be like life in this world with all the unhappy parts eliminated. These people are not taking the Saviour’s words seriously: that there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage in heaven. They really don’t know what the city is or where it lies. Their folly, as the Word says, makes it so.
It is great folly because, generally speaking, the way to a city is easy to see. There were no paved highways in Palestine, as far as I know, but the ways leading up to Jerusalem were quite obvious; they were broad and well-trodden. Only a great fool could miss the way there, but nothing is surer than that sin-blinded hearts will miss the way to heaven. The way there – which is Jesus Christ, in His person and work – is revealed in the Bible, but they miss it notwithstanding the clarity with which it is set forth. What shines out is sovereign grace; sinners are not saved because of any worthiness in them. The eye of the Lord searches everywhere, and all that He sees is billions of sinners – every single one a sinner, abhorrent in His sight for their vileness. Nothing whatever in them makes any appeal to the affections of the Most High. God’s sovereign grace is His choosing those who are totally unworthy, fully deserving a lost eternity; it is God determining to save them, sending His Son into the world to redeem them and sending the Holy Spirit to call them effectually to repentance and to faith in Jesus Christ.
The nature of the mediation that was needed reveals the desperate case of sinners; nothing less than a sacrifice that would satisfy divine justice could reconcile to God these wicked, vile, ruined sinners – nothing less than His own Son coming in God’s great name to save. He who is the second person of the glorious Trinity, who is the co-equal of the Father and the Holy Spirit, condescending in infinite humiliation to become man in order that, as man, he would do what was necessary for the redemption of those creatures whom God had chosen from eternity. The mediation of Christ runs right through the Word of God from the very first promise of salvation, which was given in Eden. There the lost couple were now discovering their folly and their ruin; they were discovering that death lay before them and that a whole race was running into the same awful situation. But to them God spoke of a Deliverer, One that would bruise the head of the serpent at the cost of His own heel being bruised. This is what the Word of God sets forth: “There is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12) – only this name of Jesus. There is “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5).
The case of sinners is so desperate that no less a being had to come to do this tremendous work of redeeming vile, guilty sinners. The glorious fact is that after many centuries the Son of God came into this world in our nature. Modern churchmen dismiss the incarnation; they dismiss the resurrection; they dismiss everything regarding the person and work of Christ – although they usually single out the incarnation and the resurrection. But this is God’s work, sending His own Son into the world to save these wretched, wicked creatures. And this Son came and did all that was necessary for the redemption of these fallen souls.
The sinner who disregards Christ remains in his or her sins. There is no way by which God will accept a sinner unless that sinner will seek mercy in the name of Christ. “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13), is a classic text of the Word of God that we have reason to be using ourselves and to be commending to others. “I who am a guilty sinner, I who am afraid that it will all end in death eternal, I come to Thee, the Holy One, in Christ’s name and ask for mercy and grace, forgiveness for my sins, eternal life, justification and sanctification.”
Salvation is by the way of mercy and grace, humbly sought and obtained. And the proof that we are on this way is that we glory in the cross of Christ and desire to obey Him. I put it to you, friend, Have you found the way to the city? Can you say here tonight: I am, by the grace of God, on the way to the city? Too long I chose my own ways of going to heaven; if I thought much about heaven it was by ways of my own that I expected to reach there. Too long I despised and rejected Him who was the only way to the Father and to God’s holy heaven. So I put it to you: Can you say that your expectation of acceptance by God, of being brought to heaven, of surviving the judgement, is based altogether on the person and work of Christ? Is this what you are basing your hope upon: that Christ died and rose again, that He was delivered for our offences and raised again for our justification, that He waits to be gracious to poor creatures such as we are, and that the soul that trusts in Him shall not be put to shame.
Such people are on their way to the city and will at last be in it. There they will acknowledge that their robes were washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb, and that by the grace of God they were brought, in some measure, to fulfill man’s great end – to glorify God and enjoy Him for ever. They will acknowledge that by the grace of God they were delivered from the guilt, condemnation and dominion of sin, and from fear of death and hell, and were brought, in some measure, to keep His commandments. David said,
“O how love I Thy law! It is my study all the day” (Ps 119:97).
“O how I wish that I could keep the commandments of God perfectly.” But in heaven, of course, that will be done. There they will at last be righteous, holy and happy for ever in the presence of the Son, the One they trusted in, seeing something of His glory by faith. They will be with Him, His people and the holy angels, in that heaven whose blessedness, beauty and glory are in fact indescribable. Everything depends on knowing where the city is and what the city is, and on being on the right way to the city. And that, I say again, is summed up entirely in this matter of faith in Jesus Christ.
1. Preached in Glasgow on 27 April 1997, the Sabbath evening of a communion season. Mr McPherson (1915-2000) was then minister of Perth.