St. Luke v.5. Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net.
The words are a complaint for labour spent in vain, yet not quite without hope of better success. And they are S. Peter's to Christ, at whose word, notwithstanding so much pain already lost, he fears not to fall to his work again.
And the words have both their history, their moral, and their allegory. They tell us what was S. Peter's and his fellows' lot, and what will be ours, both in moral and spiritual employments; to lose all our labour if Christ, if God be not with us, if our Master look not over us, if his word be not with us, both to direct us what to do and to bless us in the doing. They, here "toiled all the night, and took nothing;" that is history. Men often toil and labour day and night, and catch as little; that is the moral. Nay, God's own labourers, his fishermen, fish and fish, labour and take pains, and catch nothing; that is the allegory. Now what is the reason, but because God is absent all the while? For that, as man lives not, so he thrives not, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. All we prosper or profit is by the power and virtue of his almighty word, and in the power of that word we must let down our nets, if we look for a draught; [299/300] and though we have laboured all this while and caught nothing, or but little, or though it must be still our lot to labour still and get nothing, yet, in confidence of that word we must "let down again,"- and now we do,- yea, though it be his pleasure that our net return again both empty and broken.
I will not meddle now with S. Peter's story, as he was a fisherman; what he sometimes was it matters not, "God respecteth no man's person." I shall consider him only under these two notions: as a man, one of the same common fortune with the sons of men; and as a "fisher of men," one selected by the great Master of the world to ensnare the souls of men, to bring then to his own table, and in this sense I divide the words into generals:
I. S. Peter's and his partners' ill success, that they "toiled all night and took nothing."
II. His conclusion yet to go to his work again upon Christ's command, and confidence of better issues: "Never-theless at thy word I will let down the net."
I. In the first, whether we consider S. Peter under the common condition of men, as a mean, or under the nature of an Apostle, as a man separate to a holy function, to deal with bringing other men to the kingdom of heaven through his ministry and office, we have these particulars:
1. That all our labour by itself is but toil and misery, if Christ be not in it to lighten those words, "We have toiled."
2. That it is uncomfortable, as being in the night, a sad dolesome time, if Christ be not by to enlighten it.
3. That it is vain and unprofitable; we get nothing by it all, if he be not with us to direct and bless us: "W e have toiled all night, and taken in nothing."
4. That be it whose it will, how seasonable soever, be we as wise and politic in it as we can, be we never so industrious in our trades or works, so it will be. We--we men that well enough know our trade, we who have toiled, and omitted no pains--we who have "toiled all night," failed in no point of art or time, we vet, even we, have "taken nothing" all the while that Christ was not with us.
5. That of this we may and must sometimes complain, with S. Peter, to our Master, "Master, we have toiled," &c. [300/301] Complain we may, yet not be discouraged for all that, or lay down our work, for in the second general we have several particulars against it.
II. Not to leave off work, but to resolve to set to our work again, and hereafter to direct it better, to guide and set it by his will and word that so it may thrive and prosper.
1. To do it at his word, that is, readily, whensoever, or as soon soever as he commands.
2. "At his word," that is, obediently, for his word's sake, upon his command and word.
3. "Nevertheless at his word," that is, confidently, not-withstanding all that flesh or reason can say against it.
4. And lastly, resolutely, to resolve, come what will upon it, we will do it. "Nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net."
I. I begin with S. Peter's ill success, and that is no com-fortable beginning; but it is the beginning of the text, and I love order everywhere, though it cost never so dear to keep that.
(1.) Well then, "We have toiled all the night," says S. Peter for himself and his partners, "and have caught nothing." So say I first for me and my partners, any partners and fellows in nature, for all, or most of the sons of men, and my partners and fellows in office and ministry, the ministers of Christ, "We have toiled," &c. I am to speak of all our labours that all of them, even the best of them, are first but toil and misery.
For the labours of the sons of men that have nothing else to sweeten then but earth, that they are toils you need ask nobody but yourselves. Your very pleasures are toils and weariness: tell me the sweetest and easiest of your delights and recreations, if they do not quickly weary you, and grow toilsome to you? Let it be hunting, or hawking, or running, or walking; let it be any other exercise of the body, let it be your more quiet and sedentary recreations, let it be but talk and discourse, you are weary often before the day runs out, and out of wearisomeness change your seats and stations and postures and discourses too.
And if your pleasures prove in effect but toils, what, think you, do your labours do? To rise up early, and go to bed [301/302] late, and eat the bread of carefulness--to break your rests, to wear out your bodies, to consume your spirits--is it not a toil somewhat more than labour? Yet, thus is all our labour under the sun, when Christ is absent from us; for what is there to sweeten any of our labours when God is gone? Call up the choicest of those aims you propound as ends to your pains and rewards to your labours, and tell us, if you can, whether they be able to take off the sorrow and trouble from your work, or make amends for them at all. Riches, they are some men's aim, and are not as trouble-some as the ways you got them by?--do they not afflict as much in the keeping, and disposing, as they did in the getting? Pleasures are others aims, and I have told you already what they are whose very pursuit or enjoyment is as wearisome as your work. Honours are other men's aims; and what has honour in that is not burthensome, but a name? Nay, even that too sets a man upon the rack to behave and demean himself with a kind of niceness and scrupulous observance of a respect due to such a title or place, in which he is as much pained sometimes as in Little-ease, or a narrow prison. These ends, then, not being able to take off the nature of toil from the means and endeavours by which they are pursued, there can be nothing said to quit our labours from the true titles of toils and miseries.
Miseries, indeed, as well as toils, if God be not with them; for without him we cannot but be miserable, we, and all we do,--we, and all we have. Samson, grinding at his mill, is in more ease and happiness than we without Christ. All our works are like spiders' webs, good for nothing but to catch flies; that is, impudent and importunate desires, which are the daily issues of our ill-spent hours; for our desires and lusts increase with our labours, and add to their toil; they suffer us to take no rest, neither day nor night; even upon our beds they trouble us, and make our downy feathers as hard as rocks and marble; the covetous man cannot sleep for the importunate buzzings of his desires, nor the ambitious man for his; nor the luxurious man for his; their eyelids cannot sleep, nor can the temples of their head take any rest, for the swarms and bumming, of their inordinate passions.
The case is somewhat better with hire whose labour is for [302/303] God; but it is somewhat alike when it finds no success, a mere toiling of the spirit's. Our studies, and pains, and preachings do but wear out our bodies and afflict our souls, when we only go round, as in a circle, without fastening any where, when we effect nothing with all our pains. Men think the ministers have an easy life of it; but if they knew their down-sittings and their up-risings, the travail of their pains, even to a sickness,--the labour of their minds, even to distraction,--the perplexity of opinions that molest them the hard task of reconciling differences, that daily lies sure upon them,--the diversity of judgments that distracts them,--the care of their pastoral charge, that night and day tortures them,--their toilings whole nights, even without a figure, that wear them out; the little esteem, after all this, of all their pains and persons that dejects their spirits; the less success of their endeavours, that grieves them to the souls and heart; if men would but understand the sad toil of these labouring thoughts as well as labours, together with those indispositions of body that usually grow upon them, and those forced retire-ments, or debarments from those just pleasures and recrea-tions that men of other conditions lawfully enough indulge themselves, they would confess freely that our labour too, if we abstract it from the relation it has to God, is but toil and misery.
And (2) as uncomfortable too as yours, as any else can be; for what more uncomfortable than to see so many years of preaching and praying, reading and studying, return back upon us without success? And yet it is common; to have employed all our time, and means, and industry, many years, and to come at last to our Master with this heavy account, "Master, we have fished all night," all fishing time, and "have caught nothing;" and yet it is usual.
Yet thus uncomfortable is all our work, when God pleases to withdraw from us. Hence it is that Moses draws back so fast, and would fain avoid God's embassy. He foresaw it would prove but an uncomfortable piece of work. Hence Isaiah cries out so complainingly, "Who has believed our report?" Hence Jeremiah grows sad and out of heart, and bemoans himself, "Woe is me, my mother, that thou hast borne a man of strife and a man of contention to the [303/304]whole earth! I have neither lent on usury, nor have men lent to me on usury; yet every one of them doth curse me." Here is something indeed to make our case less comfortable than any others, that do we never so well, live we never so justly; if, with Christ, we live like other men, after the ordinary fashion, then Behold friends of publicans and sinners; if somewhat strictly, with S. John Baptist, in fastings and rigours, then Behold, they have a devil,--we are superstitious and popish; nothing pleases them; use we people never so fairly, we are always sure to be opposed, to be contradicted, to be evil spoken of, even in those things wherein we deserve not; and, which is sadder yet, to have those which are committed to our care seduced from us easily, and by troops, and seduced from God, even by those who care not for their souls, but for their fleece, and for the glory of making proselytes, and by that, children of hell, at least, as much as themselves; all this, notwith-standing the painfullest of our endeavours.
Thus, of all kind of labours, the minister's (i.) if God's word be not by to comfort them, is in natural reason the most uncomfortable. Yet, (ii.) there is no comfort in any, where he is not. All men's labours have something of night and sad darkness with then, where that eternal sunshine does not come and clear up the coasts. The wicked man, he toils and moils, but finds no comfort; the blackness and horror of his our sins continually affright him. The natural man, he works and labours, but he finds no comfort; none of his works can open him so much as a window into heaven, either to be received in, or even to see into it: without faith it is impossible to see comfort thence. The Jew, he labours, and sees no comfort of his work; it is high night with him; Moses' veil is upon his eves, the shadows are still upon him, and he sits down in darkness. The ignorant man, he sees no comfort in his endeavours, for he goes on, and toils and moils, and sees not, minds but heaven at all. Nor is there any labourer in the world, but he that works upon Christ's word, in his presence, and by his assistance that meets any comfort in anything he does. The strong man has no com-fort in his strength, nor the rich man in his riches, nor the great man in his honours (all of them but a discontented [304/305] crew), if this sun of righteousness make it not day unto them. All these men's labours are in the night, the night of ignorance, where there is no light at all, or the night of nature, where it is but star-light, or the night of the law, where it is but moon-light, or the night of sin, where all these little lights are dimmed, and the great one of grace put out quite. There is no light in any of these to comfort us, wherein to rejoice; nay, all the goods of the world, all that we daily strive and strain and spend ourselves for, cannot afford the least true comfort or refreshment to an afflicted soul; for get we what we can, catch what catch we may, we do but toil all night and catch nothing, if Christ or his grace be absent from us. Our labours also are, thirdly, unpro-fitable, where the darkness either drives out, or admits not the bright sun of glory; where our toil and labour is in the night.
(3.) He that works in any of the aforesaid nights, his labours profit not; he shall take nothing. To run through them particularly: The Gentile, (i.) he is the first night-worker, he toils, and labours, and works indeed, but can neither find out the knowledge of the truth, nor attain the practice of true virtue; finds no benefit of all his labour, he walks on, says S. Paul, in "the vanity of his mind, his understanding being darkened;" their "imaginations vain," and "their foolish hearts" hardened. They neither know--wherein con-sists happiness, nor how to come by it. Their wise men are divided in their opinions about it, and themselves wholly estranged from it; "alienated from the life of God," says the Apostle. They can catch nothing, with all their busy inquisition, but a mere "profession to be wise," and pro-fessing they "become fools;" a pretty catch of it.
(ii.) The Jew, he labours much to as little purpose; and, indeed, he labours in the night too, for his day is done, his time is past; Jewish religion dead and gone, and nothing now to be gained by that. When it was at the best with them, they "received not the promise;" they laboured indeed, but caught little in hand; the full promise, that was kept for us, "that they without us should not he made perfect." Their burnt-offerings and sacrifices for sin could not truly purify them one whit; all were but figures, their whole religion but one great type of ours, their brightest day [304/ 305] but night to ours. At the descending of this eternal Word was all to be perfected, nothing to be obtained but from him and by him, at whose arriving only first appeared the day, and with him the only draught worth drawing up.
(iii.) When any man is involved in the night of his own sins, all his works also will prove unprofitable whilst he is so. God will not hear him; his sins they cannot profit him,--what-ever they pretend, how fair soever they promise him; for "what fruit had you then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed;" no fruit, but much shame. Nay, his good works in that estate, how fair soever they seen, will do him as little service: "Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing." "His prayer shall be turned into sin; "his fastings shall not be accepted. His very tears shall be neglected, as Esau's were. He shall get nothing by all his works, all his labour, but grief and sorrow; for without this heavenly flame of divine charity--which is put out by sin--to enlighten that night, even good works themselves will gain us nothing; all of them together will do us no good, but as done in the faith of his word, whose word is in the text; in the efficacy of his command, at whose com-mand Peter again lets down his net. Without his word and presence too, to quicken us out of our sins, it is but toiling all night; all our labours nothing else.
(iv.) No man's labours or endeavours at all can avail any-thing as from themselves; not only as to the gaining of an eternal reward--to which they carry no proportion--but not of a temporal happiness neither. "Except the Lord build the house, their labour is but lost that build it." A man's trade cannot help him: "Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain." A man's vigilance will not keep him: it is "but lost labour that thou hast to rise up early and go to bed late, and eat the bread of carefulness;" no care or pains can gain that man anything whom God does not vouchsafe to prosper. "The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all;" that is, God's providence, that by changes of times, and intermixing of [306/307] accidents and contingencies, disposes all, says the wise man; and it is "the blessing of the Lord" that "maketh rich," says the same good man; it is uncomfortable being rich without that blessing.
(v.) But, above all, the blessing upon our labours, the minis-ters' labours, is from God. We may "be instant in season and out of season, reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all long-suffering and patience;" "though we should speak with the tongue of men and angels," words of life and spirit; though we should every day preach, with S. Paul, even to midnight, and call out to you to hear and obey, till we were hoarse with speaking, and can speak no more; yea, though we should speak with that passion, as if our own souls were incited into it, and were distilling with our words, and so continue from day to day, till our day were overclouded in ever-lasting night; yet it might be, with all this pains, we might catch nothing. It is what I need not stand to prove; Moses, and Elijah, and Jeremiah, and all the prophets, are sufficient witnesses, some time or other, of vast labours spent in vain. And the times our own eyes have seen, and do yet behold, are too unhappy an evidence of many men's whole lives and ministries thus spent in vain, where Christ pleases to withdraw himself either from the minister or from the people.
And indeed, this is the least wonder of all the rest: the gaining of souls being God's proper business; and therefore never like to be done without him. We fish but in the night, as if we knew not what we did, nor saw how to cast our nets to any advantage without him. At his word only the net is rightly spread; at his word only the waters flow and bring in apace; he calls, and the fishes come amain; and till he himself either calls or comes, we catch nothing.
(4.) Nay, to come to the fourth particular, though we omit no pains, but even toil and labour what we can, nor slip no time, but even break our sleep, and take in the nights; nor fail of any opportunity, but take every hour of the night, ready all the night long, upon the least occasion; nor neglect any policy or art to help us, but make it our whole labour and business every way to gain our intentions, though we be never so great or good, so wise or subtle, so many or so [307/308] powerful, we shall gain nothing but labour and sorrow by the hand, unless God be with us.
(i.) Toil itself, and labour, catches nothing; "We have toiled all night and caught nothing;" all our labour is but as the running round of a mill, or the turning of a door upon the hinges, never the further for all its motion. "Con-sider your ways," says the prophet, "you have sown much, and bring in little;" "he that earneth wages earns it to put into a bag with holes." He gains somewhat, as he thinks, and lays it up; but when he looks again for it, it is come to nothing. He that gave his mind to seek out the nature and profit of every labour under the sun, returns home empty, only with this experimental saying in his mouth: "What has a man of all his labour, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath laboured under the sun? for all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief." A goodly catch for all his pains.
(ii.) All the attendance upon times and seasons will effect no more, if you separate from God's special benediction; "We have toiled all night and yet caught nothing." Let a man serve seven years for a fortune or preferment, as Jacob did for Rachel, and in the morning his fair and longed for Rachel will prove but blear-eyed Leah at the best. What-ever it is he gets, it will be but misery to him, or a false happiness. Or let him lie waiting with the bed-rid man at the pool of Bethesda eight and thirty years for the moving of the waters, he will always be prevented--be never able to get in--till Christ come to him; yea, let him wait out all his years, and draw out his days in perpetual expectations and attendances for some happy planet, some propitious hour; -he will never see it, unless God speak the word and com-mand it to him. These fishers, in the text, had even chose their time and spent it out to the last minute--the best time to fish; when the eye of the sporting fish could not see the net that was spread to entangle them, nor perceive the hand or shadow of him who subtilty laid wait to take them, --the time of night; and they pursued their labour till the day came on, "All the night," says the text, yet nothing they could catch; they lost their labour and their hope. Just thus it is, when men having, as they think, diligently made [308/309] use of the opportunity, and expected it out, having never thought of God all the while, find themselves at last no nearer the end of their desires than they were at the begin-ning. Your own eyes see it by many daily experiences that it thus oft falls out.
(iii.) Policy comes ever and anon as short of its aims where God is set aside. Though men be oft so cunning in all the arts of thriving, that nothing seems to escape their reach; though the net seem full with fish, their fields stand thick with corn, and their garners full and plenteous with all manlier of store; yet draw up the net when the night is gone, when the clear clay appears to show--all things as they are, and, behold, in all these they have taken nothing: their souls, the best fish, are lost and gone by their unjust and wicked gains; the true fish is slipt away, and there is nothing but the scales and slime, a little glittering earth, or slimy pleasure left behind. Thus mere policy, I mean such as God is not remembered in, proves ever at the last. But it is ofttimes seen, that such policies even deceive them of their own intentions too, and they fall commonily by what they had determined as steps to rise by. Laban, thinking to enrich himself by his covetous bargain, changes Jacob's wages ten times, but still changes for the worst. If Laban says to Jacob, "the speckled shall be thy wages, then all the cattle bare speckled if he say, the ring-stroked shall be thy hire, then all the cattle bare ring-stroked "because God was with Jacob, and not with Laban. These men here, cunning sure enough at their trade in which they were bred up, having picked out their time, and cast on every side of the slip, tried all their art, all their tricks and sleights, (for we cannot but think that being so often disappointed they used all their skill,) yet for all that "they caught nothing," for Christ was not there. "Thy wisdom and thy knowledge," saith the prophet, "it hath perverted thee." And "thou art wearied in the multitude of thy counsels." These are of no power if once God leave us. Nay, they serve all to nothing but to pervert us if Christ be not in them; all our wisdom and counsels but ignorance and folly without the presence of this Eternal wisdom, this great Counsellor.
(iv.) We, be we never so great, never so good, never so [309/310] many, never so wise, may toil and trouble ourselves, and all for nothing. "All the men whose hands are mighty have found nothing." Great men may fail as well as others. Nay, more, Peter here and his partners were good and honest men, yet success does not always answer such men's labours neither; here they fish, and after Christ's resurrection again. They fish all night, but catch nothing till Christ came to them: there is good men labouring and catching nothing. And many they were together; they join hands, and heads, and all their implements, yet it is all to no purpose. "Though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not be unpunished.'' And though hand join in hand to bring matters to pass, the issue and event comes from above. A multi-tude is nothing against the Lord of hosts; no, nor without him. There is many joined together and effecting nothing. And then, again, there is Solomon, a wise man-time wisest of the earth--after all his search and labour, coming back with nothing but "vanity of vanity; all is vanity and vexation of spirit." He found it not scientifically only, but experi-mentally, not only by happy knowledge, but unhappy expe-rience also, too sad a truth. And all this to inform us in this one truth, that there is neither skill, nor labour, nor strength, nor policy, nor time, nor opportunity of any prevalence not only against the Lord, but without him too.
We must not, after all these men, think much, nor must you, that men of our order should toil and labour day and night, and catch nothing. The test says, "We:" it is a common misery; that is some comfort, that it is not a per-sonal lot, but a common condition to others with us. And in this "we" there is a better we than we ourselves; S. Peter and his fellows must he reckoned. It is S. Peter's, the greatest fisher's fortune, to be sometimes disappointed of the end of his labours. It may be so much the rather his, and such as he, Christ's skilfullest, greatest fishers, such as with him here fish in the deep, even because they do so; whilst a company of petty fishermen, that stand by the shore and fish in the shallows, catch fish enough. Will you know the reason?
S. Peter and his followers lay deep in the depth of heaven, and catch few fish, because the fish are of the world, and [310/311] therefore savour not heavenly baits; care not to leap so high; they are for watery, fading, transitory pleasures. But others, that fish upon the shore, that stir not from the earth, that stand up and preach nothing but earthly interests and respects; who fish with flies, vanities, and follies, or earth-worms, earthly arguments; or cast into the shallows of vain fancies and inventions; who make religions of their own every day new: these catch fish enow, because perhaps the silly fish, the fry at least, are most delighted with such baits.
We might have thought it had been these men's faults, that having fished all night they took nothing; but that they were fishermen by their trade, expert in the art, such as were brought up to it, and lived by it: there is, therefore, something more in it than so. The great Governor of sea and land would not suffer those inhabitants of the water to come at that time, as at others, into the net. It is God's disposing hand that thus deceives the net of its expected prey, and we must be content. Noah was a good mean, and Lot was a good moan, and great men both, yet Noah preaches repentance to the old world, and Lot afterward to the men of Sodom, without any success; the one preached one hundred and twenty years, the other all the time he stated in Sodom, yet not one soul gained by all their labour. Many wise men and prophets have had as sorrowful success. Miser-able is the case the while that the devil thus out--fishes us. Yet so it is; take we what pains we can; though we were more thoroughly read in S. Paul's practice than we are, in fastings often, in watchings oft, in hunger and thirst, in fears and anxieties, in cares and painfulness; watch we our times never so punctually, and fish we never so studiously in the night, when the passions are at rest, and the deep silence of the night upon them, no noise or distractions, as we would think, to hinder the distinct hearing of the word of Christ; use we never so much art and policy, so much rhetoric and argument to persuade, so that one would think we could not possibly but take: yet even thus our hopes may be deluded, because nothing comes to God's net but what he brings.
(1.) We may, then, first comfort ourselves, if we have done our utmost, if we have discharged our duty, that however [311/312] this unhappiness betide us, yet we are not alone; nor is it our fault, though our misfortune. Paul may plant, and Apollos water, yet both he in the same lot with us, if God give not the increase. Nay, God himself seems to be in the same case, whilst he complains: "All the day long have I stretched out my hand to a disobedient and gainsaying people." And you all also may cheer up your souls in your honest and painful labours, though peradventure they succeed not; however that you have done your duty, and rest now only upon the hand of God to second you, and give success: which if it do, you presently grow up and prosper; if not, God's overruling providence, and wiser disposing goodness, well thought upon, will easily teach you to be content.
And (2) remember, this taking nothing may prove at last more profitable than the greatest draught you ever did or could expect. S. Peter and his fellow-fishers, by catching nothing caught everything,--because him, who is all in all, who thus called them to himself by the occasion of their ill success. And when the worst of casualties betide us, let us think, that though all our hopes and expectations fail us,- all our labours languish away in utter despair,-and we be left confounded with the miscarriages of all our pains; yet God can so order it, that out of nothing all things, all hood things, may one day after happen to us; and though he will give us nothing else, yet he will give Himself at last; and upon this not only be comforted, but rejoice in our miscarriages.
And (3) that we may descend to the last particular of S. Peter's ill success. Though we may comfort ourselves a little in the frustration of our hopes, that it so pleases God to order them, and must therefore well be pleased because it is his pleasure, and rejoice sometimes too that we are by such means drawn to God ere we are aware: yet we may complain to him also, lastly, of the same business, and cry out, with S. Peter, "Master, we have toiled all the night and taken nothing."
It is a usual timing to complain of a misery, or miscarriage, and it is as usual to complain to those whom it either does not concern to know it, or who cannot help us. But this [312/313] complaint here is set right; to Christ it is, and he is our Master, to whom we are to account for the works of our calling, for the works both of day and night.
And therefore to thee, first, Master, we complain that we are no better servants, that we are not worthy to call thee Master, that we are unprofitable servants.
Next we complain that we have wearied ourselves in the ways of vanity, in the works of darkness, and have loved the night too well, and the works of darkness more than light.
Then we complain that all our labours are but toils and sorrows.
Then, again, we bemoan our sad condition, that we, even the best of us, that we, even all of us, can say no better for ourselves.
Yet, lastly, we complain again, that, notwithstanding all our toil and labour, notwithstanding thou art our Master, and we thy servants, for all our hours and pains spent upon our work we have caught nothing. Were it never so little gain, it would not grieve us; were it but a few little fishes, (they might serve for thousands), yea, but one, something, any thing, it would not so afflict us: but this [nothing] is of hard digesture; this [nothing] in every thing troubles us, every way perplexes us: so much the more in that it comes often from our own fault, or we may justly fear it, that we thus miscarry. However, it is a thing we may well complain of, as by such complaints even desiring him to give us better success in the rest of our labours.
But whether he will do that or no, if he command us to go on, we must do so still, all other businesses notwithstanding, whatever success past or to come, "nevertheless," at his word we must let down the net; which is our second general; to resolve, notwithstanding all former lost pains and labours, to fall yet, upon his word, to our work again.
II. The net, in moral businesses, is all those several ways and means by which our actions catch their several ends and take effect; and to let down these nets is to apply ourselves to the pursuits of our desires and intentions by ways and means probable to effect them.
In spiritual employments, the net to fish for men is, com-monly, the word truly preached; the threads are the words [313/314] of persuasion; the knots, the arguments of reason; the plummets are the articles and grounds of the faith. This net is to be wove by study and pains, to be let down and loosed by preaching, to be gathered up by calling men to account of what was heard, what they have done upon it; it is washed and cleansed by our tears and prayers, and spread and dried by our charity and mortified affections. And this is the net that we must let down, though we catch nothing. And at his word it is to be let down; his word to be the length and breadth, the whole rule and measure of all our sermons, all your actions. Leave off our work we must, not because it does not answer us with success, but to our work again, and see where we erred, and mend it; find what was the occasion of our ill success, our taking nought, and avoid it. If we prided ourselves too much in our own skill or wisdom, or trusted too much upon the goodness of our own works and labours; or, through the darkness of igno-rance, could not well see what to do; or, through the thick night of sins, miscarried in it; or, for want of God's implored assistance, missed of our success; let us now mend all, by ruling ourselves and all our actions according to his word. His word will teach us that art which shall not fail us; his word shall give us humility to cast deep enough; his word will be a lantern to enlighten our night, that we may see our way, and what to do; his word will bring us near himself, that we may the better hear his counsel, and obey his voice, and bring him nearer us, that he may bless us. And so cer-tainly--he will, if, with S. Peter here, whatever has befell us, or is like to do, we "nevertheless" at his word again let down the net: (1) readily, without delaying; (2) obediently, without murmuring; (3) confidently, without disputing; (4) resolutely, without wavering.
And indeed, at his word to do it, is to do it (1) readily, for a word speaking, not to expect command upon command, with S. Peter, even to be grieved to be bidden again and again, to have our love or duty called so much in question as to hear a second or third injunction to it. Our former hard hap must not make us to demur, but rather hasten us to our work again, to make amends for our former losses.
Abraham leaves his country and his father's house for a [314/315] word speaking: God did but speak, and away presently goes the father of the faithful. "Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do it instantly," says the wise man; but if God speak to thee once to do it, let the word be no sooner heard than thy hand in action. Do what thou art to do readily, do it cheer-fully. That first.
(2.) At his word to do it, is to do it obediently; to do it for his word, for his speaking, because he commands it, "At thy word." Actions are tied only done in obedience when they are done for his sake who commands, and because he com-mands them. He that here pleads his own respects, that preaches for his own ends, or does any thing only to satisfy or content himself, that frames his actions for gain or plea-sure, he aims at nothing but himself, and does not those labours at Christ's word, or in the power of it. He does it properly at Christ's word that looks for no other reason of his actions but his command and will, nor propounds any other intention to himself but a full submission to God's will and pleasure; that is reason enough to the truly obedient soul, that God commands it.
(3.) And upon this it is that we expound, "Nevertheless at thy word," to be in confidence of the truth and virtue of that word above all words besides, above all reason besides. S. Peter with his company had fished and toiled in fishing all the night, the fittest time to fill their nets, and yet nothing would be caught. It was against all reason and experience to expect anything now, they themselves, too, being over-wearied with their toil; yet he disputes not with his Lord; but, as if he confessed he could teach him better, he (i.) calls him "Master;" and (ii.) as if his word were of more power than all their skill and experience far, he rests himself wholly upon that. And yet more; as if the very loosing or letting down now of the net upon his bare word alone were enough to bring up a full draught of fish, he makes mention no longer of his own pains or labours, as if they could anything avail, but professes only to "let down the net," confident now by the power of his word only to obtain what neither his art nor labour could procure before, nor reason persuade him to at any time, nay, what all they persuade him now against. This is the right rule of faith and obedience, [315/316] even against hope to believe in hope, to believe his word above our reason to neglect all petty under scruples, to rely wholly upon his authority. It was Abra-ham's glory that "he considered not his own body now dead, nor the deadness of Sarah's womb;" considered not the strength of nature when God's promise came above it; that he was so ready to offer up Isaac, in whom God had pro-mised him to call his seal, as if he believed God could raise him up again being dead, or else some way or other make good his promise, which was made in Isaac, and that he would do it too though Isaac were made a sacrifice, and so no natural or reasonable possibility left him for any such hope: yet nevertheless do he would as God commanded, offer up Isaac at his worth as readily here as S. Peter let down his net.
"Nevertheless," lastly, "at thy word we will;" whether, that is, he please to bless us according to our wish or not, whether we shall bring up fish or no, whether he will have us take or not, we will let down the net because he bids us. To the former confidence is to be added resolution. As we know and are confident he can by his word do what he will, so whether he will do it, yea or no, yet for his word, because it is his will that we should still continue on our labours and work, we will do so, "We will let down the net," come what will come of it. Whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear, preach we must; for "woe is me," says the Apostle, "if I preach not the Gospel;" the command is hard upon us. And whether your works be like to prosper in your hands as you desire, or whether not, labour still you must, and not he idle. To toil all night and catch nothing is uncomfortable, yet to toil all night and catch nothing, and yet to toil again, is constancy and resolution, and may challenge the reward of no petty virtue at his hands, who so esteems and accepts it. You show as much daily in temporal affairs: ye work, and toil, and lose your labour, yet you try again; you plough and sow, and sometimes bring home little, yet you plough and sow again. Be we but as resolute in our spiritual affairs, and work, and they will succeed at last to purpose, to make a recompense for all former misfortunes. If your prayers after a whole night return empty, if your [316/317] endeavours to repentance and amendment, if your wrestling with temptations, or struggling for mastery with your passions and sins, be not presently answered with success, but you yet groan under the dominion of them, not yet fully able to resist temptations, nor to leave off your sins or break off your transgressions, if you cannot by some nights and days of exercise and endeavour obtain yet those graces and virtues you desire, endeavour yet again, strive and pray, and labour yet again, and in his name and word pursue your work. In his name you cannot miscarry at the last, your net will come at length full fraught with grace and glory.
You see the very Apostles of Christ are in the like condition: many nights and days toil and labour brings there nothing home, yet they still fish again, and so must we, if at last we may gain but one poor soul into the net of the kingdom, nay though but save our own. And if none but that, yet we must let down the net for more, not despair of more; there may cone more at length: we must preach, and you must hear, again and again, "line upon line, line upon line, here a little and theme a little," cast on this side, cast on that, in season and out, night and day "with all patience and long suffering," as the Apostle speaks, if so be at last that Jesus will deign to come unto us, that he will vouchsafe to speak efffectually his servants, and make them hear, that he will please to stand by and call the fish into the net.
"Master, we have now at thy word let down the net," Oh speak the word only and thy servants shall hear thee and hasten to thee, and obey thee, and be wholly taken by thee. Our labours are vain without thy blessing, nothing in them but weariness and toil; have mercy upon this our sad and uncomfortable condition, and relieve us, both the fishers and the fish, and lift us up out of this sea of misery, this depth of iniquity, catch us all together in thy net, and us unto thyself into thy kingdom, where there is no more toil or labour, no more night at all, no more tempestuous seas or weather, where we are sure to catch that which is above all our labours, all our toil-a full and sufficient recompense for them all, the overfull, infinite and unspeakable rewards of eternal glory.