Preached in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, on Wednesday, March 3, 1869, as part of the Oxford Lent course.
Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said unto him, Why hast thou done this? For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.
WHEN we take up the Book of Jonah, that which strikes us first of all as lying upon the very surface of the book is the degree in which miracle pervades the whole narrative. In this respect the book is unlike any other among the minor Prophets. Zechariah's earlier prophecies take the form of a series of visions; Jonah's is a history of wonders patent to sense. Jonah thus seems to belong less to the minor Prophets than to the narratives of the Prophets Elijah and Elisha, preserved in the historical books of the Old Testament. His life is a tissue of preternatural occurrences. "Nothing is impossible with God," observes a clever skeptical commentator, "and hence Jonah lives in the belly of the sea-fish without being suffocated; hence the Palm springs up during the night to such a height that it overshadows a man in a sitting posture. As Jehovah bends everything in the world to His own purposes at pleasure, these marvellous coincidences of his book had nothing in them to astonish the Author. The lot falls upon the right man; the tempest rises most opportunely, and is allayed at the proper time; and the fish is ready at hand to swallow Jonah and vomit him out again. So, again, the tree is ready to sprout up, the worm to kill it, and the burning wind to make its loss perceptible." [Hitzig, Einl., qu. by Keil, Einleitung in das Buch. Jon., Biblisch. Comm.]
Between commentators of this temper and the writer of the Sacred Book the real difference is, that the Scripture writer believes seriously in a living God, and--I must say it, reluctantly but distinctly--the commentator does not. The Scripture writer certainly takes it for granted that He Who made and Who rules the world, is not precluded from acting on it and in it by any iron laws which fetter His liberty; and that to control creatures and events is not more difficult for Him than to have given them being. Whereas in the mind of the commentator, the dead abstraction which he calls God is the slave of the living, sensible reality which he names Nature; or rather Nature forms a screen between human life and God, which keeps God very effectively at a distance, and surrounds man with agencies and laws, supposed to do their work like a self-moving clock, and upon whose motion a living Omnipotent Will is never suffered to innovate. For the writers of Holy Scripture miracle is always possible, and the only question is whether there is sufficient evidence for asserting its existence in a particular case. For writers like this commentator miracle is always impossible, and the only question is, how most easily to get over the authority and statements of Scripture on the subject. Beyond all doubt the Book of Jonah does raise this question as directly as any book in the Bible; perhaps more so. Although the preservation of Jonah in the belly of the sea-fish, and the growth of the Palma Christi to a sufficient height to overshadow a sitting man, have well-attested analogies in nature which go to make the possibility of such miracles at least conceivable even to the most purely naturalistic imagination; yet the whole narrative is instinct with the presence of a Living, All-governing God, Who makes the material world subserve the moral, and Who acts through the lower creatures on the souls of man. [Keil, Einl. and in loc.] In the early ages of Christianity the Book of Jonah was appropriately ridiculed by the heathen Lucian; and in one of his Epistles St. Augustine combats the faintheartedness of some Christian believers who were disposed on this point to wince at hearing of jests current among the pagans. The virtual substance and upshot of St. Augustine's remarks is this, that a man either believes in the Resurrection of Christ or he does not. If he does not, he is not a Christian, at least in any sense known to the New Testament. If he does, he believes in a stupendous miracle which ought to make it logically impossible for him to take exception at other well-attested miracles, such as that of Jonah's sojourn in the belly of the sea-fish. [Ep. 106, qu. by Dr. Pusey, "Minor Prophets," Introd. to Jonah.] The question is thus in reality a wider and deeper one than any connected with this particular book; and the history of Jonah will be respected and believed by those who are not prepared to make short work with the most solemn and important portions of the Gospel narratives. For our Lord Himself attests the truth of Jonah's history, and makes it a sign or warrant of the miracle which was to prove His own mission to the world: "As Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly, even so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."
Thus much upon a question which could not be entirely passed by, but which we may here brush out of the way of this evening's proper subject. To his own age, doubtless, not less than to ours, Jonah's life was an announcement of the presence and power of the Living God in this His own world, which is the work of His Hands, and which most assuredly He has not deserted. But besides this, there are two messages which are spoken to our age and to all from the pages of this book; one of them concerning the love and large-heartedness of God, the other the history of a human soul, which is by no means singular in the moral aspects of its agitated destiny.
This will appear if we follow a while the guidance of the history, and accordingly begin by asking the question, why Jonah was sent to Nineveh?
"Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before Me."
This commission, it has been observed, was in keeping with God's ordinary providence respecting heathen nations. [Pusey, "Minor Prophets," p. 247.] God always blessed those of the heathen who were brought into contact with His chosen people by a certain knowledge of Himself. The Egyptian kings and people learnt much of Him from Joseph in one generation, and from Moses in another. The Canaanites heard of Him from the Spies; the Philistines by the capture of the Sacred Ark; the Phoenicians on the Mediterranean coast through Hiram of Tyre; the Syrians of Damascus through captives like Naaman's servant and the miracles of Elisha; the Babylonian and Persian kings through Daniel, and the Persians later through Esther. The truth which was already "the glory of God's people Israel," was, in a measure, "a light to lighten the Gentiles." The Synagogue anticipated some features of the Gospel, as the Church has incorporated and will always retain certain elements of the Law. It is true now that Christians are, in the Apostle's words, "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people." It was true, then, that "God is no respecter of persons; but in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him." The laws of the Divine Government are invariable; only in one age prominence is given to one law or principle, in another to another.
Jonah was sent to Nineveh in the meridian of Assyrian greatness. Two monarchs had just died whose reigns had been a succession of victories. Pul, or Ivalush, the first assailant of Israel, was yet to come. Nineveh was great both in its extent and in its power. The circuit of its walls was sixty miles; and although within the large area thus enclosed, as at Babylon, there would have been a considerable acreage of ground under cultivation,--and there is an allusion in this very book to the vast quantities of cattle herded there,--the population of the city was at least 600,000. If, among European capitals, it could not compare as to population with Paris, much less with London; Nineveh must have equalled, if it did not exceed, Berlin or St. Petersburg. Nineveh was a city in which human nature was brutalised by a long career of successful violence; brutalised to a point which degraded it even below the average heathen level. The Prophet Nahum finds the natural image which will do justice to its moral characteristics only in the lions' den: Nineveh, he says, "is the dwelling of the lions, and the feeding-place of the young lions, where the lion did tear in pieces enough for his whelps, and strangled for his lionesses." Nineveh was the home of rapacity, injustice, violence, cruelty, conducted on a truly imperial scale; and God, speaking to Jonah, says, "Their wickedness is come up before Me." God is brought before us in these words, as He sits above this waterflood of crime, as He remaineth in the moral world a King for ever. He is the Great Judge unseen by man, but witnessing all human acts and words and motives, seated even now upon His Throne of Judgment; and each crime of each member of that vast community mounts upwards, and is registered in His Heavenly Court. [See Pusey in loc.] The same phrase had already been used of the murder of Abel, and of the iniquity of Sodom and Gomorrha; it marks that special notice of sin which precedes a judgment. God had waited long in His Patience and His Mercy, but the cup at length was full to overflowing. The great city of the East must perish; and yet, only forty days before the appointed day of ruin, a voice of warning should reach it, proclaiming the justice yet implying the tenderness of God.
Of that message of mercy Jonah was to be the bearer. Other prophets might prophesy the future conversion of the heathen to the True God, following upon the surrender of Israel to the heathen power, and upon the appearance and Death of the Messiah; Jonah was to anticipate the Gospel in another way. Jonah's book contains no predictions of the remote future in words; although we know from another source that he did foretell the restoration of the borders of Israel by Jeroboam II. He was, like the Baptist, to be a preacher of repentance, who roused men by warning them of the coming judgments of God. He was to be an Apostle of the Gentiles before the days of Jesus Christ; a prophet of Israel who was to witness by the great work of his life against the notion that particular peoples and races could have no part in the living God. By going to Nineveh he was to inflict upon the reluctant imagination of his countrymen the truth that "God will have all men to be saved;" he was to break down the barriers which were supposed to restrain the Divine Mercy within the frontiers of Israel.
His book witnesses to this truth in other ways besides his mission to Nineveh.
What a picture is that of the heathen sailors, of their awe at the presence of a Divine Power in the storm, of their tender and humane consideration for the Hebrew Prophet, of their earnestness in worshipping the idol deities whom alone they knew, and all this leading up to their final conversion to the true God!
What a moral miracle; how magnificent in itself; how great in its significance and bearing on the future of the world is the conversion of Nineveh in the sequel at the Prophet's Voice! For a single day a foreign prophet announces in the streets of Nineveh the coming judgments, and the whole city turns in repentance to God. When we consider the resistance which one human will can offer to the influences of God's grace, and multiply such resistance by the numbers of a vast Asiatic capital, we see that this is really a miracle compared with which the prophet's preservation in the sea-fish is altogether insignificant; since the irrational creature would have opposed no resistance whatever to the will of its Creator. It was wrought not among Jews but Gentiles; and our Lord referred to the heathen Ninevites as an example to, and a condemnation of, the men of His day. "The men of Nineveh shall rise up in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it; because they repented at the preaching of Jonas, and behold, a Greater than Jonas is here."
This was, indeed, a foretaste of the Blessed Gospel. To us it seems a simple truth, the capacity of all human beings for salvation, through the knowledge and grace of our God and Saviour. But it was a truth dimly discerned of old; and only brought home in the long-run to the conscience of man, by a long tale of sufferings and blood. Are we Christians quite sure that we have really conquered it? Up to the French Revolution, if not since, there was in the French Pyrenees a race of men known as the Cagots. They were said to be descendants of the Arian Goths; but for many centuries they had renounced their error; they believed and worshipped exactly as their neighbours. Yet to this day you may see in the old Pyrenaean churches the small door by which they alone entered and left the aisle assigned to them; the yard where they alone were buried; the lane or street which they alone inhabited; the stream or well of water which supplied them alone, since to touch it were, in the opinion of their neighbours, downright pollution. Admitted to share the highest spiritual privileges, they were practically treated as a race accursed; they were shunned as the enemies of God and man. The spiritual fellowship which could not be denied them did but make the social ban by which they were oppressed more marked and hateful. There are no Cagots among us in England. Be it so; but are there no proofs of the same temper as that which proscribed this outcast class? Is not the human heart much the same in England as in France, now as in the last century, and for the matter of that, as it was in Palestine in the days of Jonah? Certainly our Lord has since then stretched out His arms upon the Cross, that He might embrace the world within the compass of His Redemptive Love; but the language which is still to be heard among us about African races, and the practical value of missions, and even about European nations and our Irish fellow-countrymen, and some kindred subjects, shows how little we have understood Him.
We pass to the next point--Jonah's conduct upon receiving the Divine command.
What was Jonah's exact moral position?
Jonah knew that God had spoken to him. How the word of the Lord came to him we know not. We only know that it so came to him that he could not doubt whose word it was. There is a phrase used in the Old Testament not unfrequently, "It was said unto" such and such a prophet "by the word of the Lord." The rendering should be "in the word of the Lord." This phrase seems to represent the "word of the Lord" as an atmosphere of kindling holy thought, a sphere of spiritual truth encompassing the prophet, illuminating and moving his whole soul, and finally taking shape in language of exhortation, or prediction, or teaching, or resolve, as the case might be. So it may have been with Jonah. We know nothing of events which may have preceded this heavenly inspiration. We know not whether his natural tastes, or capacities, or antecedents, whether travel, or friendships, or any like circumstances, led the way. The prophet tells us nothing to satisfy mere curiosity: every word of his book has a moral and spiritual drift. We only know that however it came to him, it was really a message from heaven which came to him, and that he knew it to be so.
This suggests a most interesting and solemn truth. Every human being, be he prophet or layman, has a definite work, some one definite work to do in this world before he dies. It is a work which he alone is fitted by God to do: his stock of strength, of thought, of feeling, of general capacity, his endowments of character, his friendships, his most instinctive and unconscious movements, all have a bearing on it. Others may be in many ways very superior to him; others may be wonderfully like him; but no other human being can fitly take the place assigned to him in the Divine. Predestination. " For this cause have I raised thee up," is the motto which points to the crisis, when he will come face to face, in all his liberty, and in all his weakness, with the call to his predestined work. His Nineveh may be, in the eyes of the world, in his own judgment, altogether beyond his powers. It may be, as he imagines, so insignificant as to be quite beneath them. But his responsibility, his danger, his glorious opportunity, are in cither case the same, when he stands confronted with the duty which beyond all others was designed for him by the Creator Who gave him life. We only learn the real interest of our own or of other men's lives, when the idea, the possibility of discovering and following out their providential purpose has dawned upon us.
How did Jonah receive the commission which God gave him? "Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord."
What is the state of mind which this implies? Jonah knew God's Will, but he did not welcome it. Why did he not welcome it?
Was it that God commanded exertions from which his constitutional indolence shrank? This has often been taken for granted. But the history discountenances it. They who fly from hard work do not, with their eyes open, undertake exertions which are at least as great as those they would avoid. In those days a voyage, along the whole course of the almost unknown Mediterranean was a more serious effort than a journey, familiar enough to an Eastern imagination, by routes which, comparatively, were well frequented across the desert to the great Asiatic capital.
Was it, then, fear? Did Jonah shrink from the violence of those fierce and brutal heathen to whom he was sent? Certainly not. His later history, and, indeed, his conduct on board the ship of Tarshish, shows that he had that perfect confidence in God's protecting Hand which makes fear impossible. He had no real continuing fear even in the belly of the sea-fish: "When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came in unto Thee into Thine Holy Temple."
What, then, was Jonah's motive for disobedience? He himself tells us that it was a private theory of his own; it was, in fact, a misguided patriotism. When upon their repentance afterwards God pardoned the Ninevites, Jonah, as he tells us, was very angry: "And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray Thee, O Lord, was not this my saying when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that Thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest Thee of the evil." Jonah had no doubt of God's mercy; he feared lest God's mercy should be shown to those whom he knew to be the enemies of his country. He knew that Assyria would be the scourge of Israel, and he therefore wished that the sins of Assyria might draw down upon it a speedy vengeance such as should disable it for purposes of aggression. If he obeyed the command of God, and denounced against Nineveh the coming judgments; God, he knew, was so tender towards all signs of repentance, especially in those who had had scanty opportunities, that He probably would not fulfil the judgments after all. Let Nineveh, then, be left to itself, to its vast ever-increasing body of sin, to its sure inheritance of coming wrath; and let Israel--the people of the Lord, the country of the Prophet--be spared from anxiety and peril in the years to come.
Patriotism, my brethren, is a natural instinct, which Revelation has, at least indirectly, sanctioned. As our family, so our country is God's gift; and the instinctive love of country, like that of near relatives, which every good man should feel, is His gift also. But neither the love of family nor country is God's best gift to man; and it may happen that a stronger and holier passion than either, namely, the love of God Himself, will, under certain circumstances, demand a serious sacrifice on the part of these lower affections. We ought, indeed, before we sacrifice them, to be very sure that some subtle form of selfishness is not playing us a trick; and that it is the love of God, and not of something much lower than He, and perhaps very unlike Him, which exacts the offering. But Abraham had had such an assurance, and it was his glory to have obeyed it, tender parent as he was; Jonah had such an assurance, but in Jonah the Jewish patriot, watching anxiously for the signs of the political horizon, was stronger than the Prophet and guide of men listening only for the commands of the Most High. No doubt, in Jonah's case, the natural sentiment of patriotism was reinforced by the religious feeling of the Israelite in favour of the privileges of the Covenant people: as a theocrat not less than as a patriot, Jonah would leave Nineveh to its fate. But this was, in Jonah, a sin against the light. Prophet as he was, he knew God's Mind; opened partly in earlier ages; opening yet more distinctly in his own opened at last with indisputable clearness to his own soul,--respecting the Gentile races. He knew that they were to have a share in the Heart of God.
The peasantry around his village home on the hills of Zabulon might naturally and rightly feel as he did. But then Jonah was not a simple peasant, but a Prophet to boot; and he could not, if he would, act with only a peasant's light and a peasant's responsibilities. It was not for him to reflect popular prejudice when he ought to be guiding it; and he might have known from the history of his country that in the end the best patriot is not the man who lends himself to the political passion of the age or of the hour, but he who, at whatever cost and beyond all else, serves his God.
Can we Christians say that, with the love of the Incarnation around us, we have always remembered that in the Body of Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian nor Scythian, bond or free, since all are one in Christ Jesus? Has this conviction availed to stop the bloody wars which have desolated Christendom, and the real reasons for which have continually been of the most earthly kind? Have we constantly acted on that precept of our Divine Master which bids His followers, in person or by deputy, go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature? Enough has been said of those ancient British Bishops who are reported to have been unwilling to convert the Saxon enemies of their race to the Faith of Christ, lest conversion should save them from a punishment which their barbarities deserved. But what shall we say of the policy both of Prance and England in Eastern Europe at this very moment, which from jealousy of another Christian power condemns twelve millions of Christians to enslavement beneath the yoke of the Infidel? What of the principle of our old Indian rule, which for so many years discouraged Christian missions in the interests of commerce; or of a war with China, undertaken with the object of forcing upon that country a demoralising traffic which even its heathen conscience condemned? If Christians can thus forget themselves and their Lord, let us not marvel at the Israelite Prophet, who had solid reasons for his error, the very shadow of which has been taken from us.
Jonah rose up;--he could not sit still. He could not go on quietly in his village home as if nothing had happened to him; as if he was morally in exactly the same state as that in which he had been before the word of the Lord bade him go to Nineveh. If he did not obey God, he must do something else; he must get out of God's way, or if that were impossible, he must try to forget Him. "Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord."
Here let us guard against a grave misunderstanding. Jonah did not suppose tbjat he could literally escape from the presence of God. He did not suppose that there were corners in the universe, still less in the inhabited globe, from which the Presence and Power of its Maker is excluded. Such a conception was natural, it may be, to the heathen, with their many gods, presiding, like human governors, or patrons, over territorial districts assigned to them by the imaginations of men,--districts beyond the limits of which they had no real jurisdiction, and could therefore be set at defiance with more or less prospect of impunity. But Jonah knew that God is everywhere by the necessity of His Nature. A localised Deity would be no good at all to a soul which had once looked the Incomprehensible in the face. The devotional language of Israel was ever the same: "Whither shall I go then from Thy Spirit? or whither shall I go from Thy Presence? If I climb up into heaven, Thou art there: if I go down to hell, Thou art there also: if I take the wings of the morning, and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall Thy Hand lead me, and Thy right Hand shall hold me." And Jonah's prayer, embodying as it does so much of the Psalter, alone shows that he was not ignorant of a truth, which was indeed as elementary in the creed of a Jewish believer as it is in that of a Christian.
The words "from the presence of the Lord" should be rendered "from being before the Lord." It was not God's inevitable and encompassing Presence, but his own sense of standing before Him as His servant and minister, from which Jonah fled. Distinguish between God's actual, matter-of-fact, unseen, but all-encompassing presence, and our personal sense of it. From the first escape is impossible; from the last it is, alas! only too easy. What Jonah wanted was a distraction, which should relieve him from the sense of duty which belonged to his prophet-conscience, from those scruples which the mistaken patriot within him would fain have crushed. He would change the mental and spiritual atmosphere; he would turn his back on a country where all that met the eye spoke of the power and reality of the Sinaitic Revelation; he would interest himself in human life, under other and different aspects; the language, the commerce, the customs, if not the religion of the Spanish seaport, might give a turn to his thoughts which would enable him to forget the past. So he "went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; and he paid the fare thereof and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from being before the Lord."
My brethren, Tarshish and the Phoenician trading-vessel belong to a civilisation which has long been buried out of sight. But the human soul remains at this hour true to its old instincts and to its oft-repeated history. We still hear the Divine summons to hard or unwelcome duty; and there are modern methods of flight unto Tarshish from being before the Lord, which do at least as well as the Phoenician trader. A change of friends, a change of habits, a change of literary occupations may suffice. Tarshish is near enough to all of us to make it easy for us to forget our duties to Nineveh.
Enough has been already said on the preternatural aspects of the judgment which overtook Jonah. Morally speaking, it brings before us three great truths. First, God's mercy in not leaving Jonah to himself. The storm was sent in love rather than in justice. If Jonah had been a reprobate, he would probably have reached Tarshish in perfect safety, after a very favourable voyage. "Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth." When we have done a deliberately wrong act, entangling and blinding the conscience, and giving to the whole moral being a false direction, the best thing that can happen to us is a heavy judgment,--some mighty tempest in the sea of life,--which rouses conscience into activity, and makes any effort or sacrifice welcome, if only thereby the past may be retraced.
Secondly, Jonah acquiesces in, nay, he dictates the terms of his own punishment. He was not dragged over the ship's sides against his will. The storm had spoken not to his physical fear, but to his conscience; his conscience was lashed into an agony which rendered him indifferent to the surging fury of the waves. He had to pass through a humiliating yet most healthful punishment, which they only can suffer who stand in some position of superiority towards their fellow-men. When little children remark misconduct or inconsistency in their parents, or servants in their master, or laymen in their clergyman; the words which express in the speaker a genuine embarrassment are felt by the hearer to convey, however unconsciously, the severest censure. "Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said unto him, Why hast thou done this?" The sincere wonder of the poor heathen inflicts upon the prophet of the Divine Will a rebuke which they do not even suspect. Jonah had just told them, "I am an Hebrew: and I fear the Lord the God of heaven, Which hath made the sea and the dry land." Their words express the distressed amazement which was produced by comparing the Prophet's profession of faith with his actual practice. If he really believed in such a God as this, how could he dare to disobey Him? It is the inconsistency of believers which is the wonder of those who believe not, and the worst enemy of the Faith. It is the patent and inexplicable inconsistency of professing to believe in the Eternal Son of God, Incarnate and Crucified for the sins of men, and then of living, as our consciences tell us many of us do live, in utter practical forgetfulness of this Powerful and Loving Saviour. Much is said, and truly, in these days, of the increased boldness and earnestness of infidelity in attacking the fundamental truths of Christianity: and there never was a time when scepticism had at its command so much ability, so many literary organs, so large and imposing an array of distinguished names, in England, as the present. But of this let us Christians be sure;--that when unbelief has said its last and bitterest word against the Person and Authority of our Divine Lord, it has done much less towards deposing Him from His rightful Throne in the hearts of men, than we individually can do, may I not add, have done, by our practical disloyalty to our own convictions, by the broken, halting, inconsistent service which, at the best, we render Him. Jonah felt something like this as to his narrower creed; and when the heathen sailors asked him for guidance, he uttered the sentence of his own punishment: "Take me up and cast me forth into the sea: so shall the sea be calm unto you; for I know that for my sake this tempest is come upon you."
Thirdly, Jonah's punishment brought with it an opportunity, which most of God's judgments in this world do offer us, and of which he made the most. The belly of the sea-fish was a retreat, from which the world was excluded. In it Jonah was driven back upon himself and the One Being, Who is like self, in being never really absent from any among us. Instead of occupying himself with plans for escape, or abandoning himself to despair, Jonah returned to God, from Whose presence he had fled, in earnest communion. He did not invent new prayers; but he fell back upon Psalms which already enriched the devotions of Israel, and with which he had long been familiar. They said all that he wanted and more; just as a few inspired words have before now fed the soul of a dying Christian for weeks or months without being exhausted. And thus Jonah was emptied for the time of his waywardness, and was at length restored to a liberty which he at once devoted to God's Will. "Then the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah." "So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh."
The lessons of a history like Jonah's may easily be misapplied. Many cases may occur in modern life which seem to be parallel, but are not so in reality. There is one feature of Jonah's case which ought to be kept steadily in view, in order to prevent such misapplications; and that is, the fact that he was himself personally convinced, and upon sufficient grounds, that God had spoken to him, and desired him to go to Nineveh.
This fact seems to be lost sight of in a class of cases, to which Scriptural examples, like Jonah, are not unfrequently applied, as sanctions. I mean cases in which, without the opportunity or the disposition to examine the questions really at issue, persons are tempted to join the Roman Catholic Church. There have been, of course, many instances, of which we all have heard or known, in which after thought, and prayer, and study, persons have come to the conclusion that it is their duty to become Roman Catholics. Now, while as English Churchmen we cannot but think them wrong, either as to their facts, or at least as to the inferences they draw from such facts, or in both respects; it is not to such cases as these that what I am going to say applies. In a larger number of cases men and women who are disposed to become Roman Catholics do not really study any one of the questions at issue; and the force which impels them towards Rome is rather an unthinking impulse than a conviction. This impulse is probably made up of several ingredients; partly of a natural taste for art or organisation; partly of the love of change as such, which enters so largely into all our natures; partly of a notion that in the Roman Church it would be possible to make a new spiritual start, and do better than had been done in the Church of England: partly of a strong affection for some friend who has taken the step in past years, and who is anxious to enlist recruits for his new communion. Under the pressure of this strong composite impulse a man meets with a Roman Catholic; who, as a matter of course, tells him that this impulse is itself a Divine Grace, drawing him sensibly towards the kingdom of the Truth, and that to resist it is perilous.
"You are Jonah," the Roman Catholic says to him in effect, "and you are bound to make a sacrifice and to obey the truth, at the cost of going to Nineveh. If you take your own course, if you resist this impulse which is upon you, you are really taking the road to Tarshish; and if you are not to be lost altogether, the best thing that can happen to you is some terrible judgment which will bring you to your senses."
In minds of a certain order, this kind of inaccurate appeal to Scripture supersedes the necessity of further argument. They are keenly--not too keenly--alive to the reality of God's guiding and sustaining grace; they are fearful--not too fearful--of grieving His Holy Spirit; but they are not sufficiently accurate to observe the fallacy which underlies such a use of Holy Scripture. That fallacy consists in the assumption that the path of duty is really as clear to themselves as it was to the Hebrew Prophet. Jonah had no doubt about--no reason for doubting--God's Will that he should go to Nineveh; there was no real room for argument in the matter; he resisted what, he knew to be a direct Divine command on the strength of a private, and chiefly political view or prejudice. But in the case before us, the question whether God docs command a man to join the Church of Rome is the very point at issue. The mere existence of a strong impulse in the direction of Rome does not decide this point any more than the existence of a strong impulse in a very opposite direction proves the truth of Calvinism or of Socinianism. Before the impulse can be treated as a grace, or as anything but a disturbing and misleading-force, which ought to be expelled and excluded from the soul as quickly as may be, the rectitude of the course of action towards which the impulse leads should be satisfactorily established. In Jonah's case this was done; hut in the case before us, it has not yet been done. No English Churchman can satisfy himself that it is a duty to become a Roman Catholic until he has at least satisfied himself of two points. First, he must be sure that the Church of England is not--I do not say, a perfect representative in all respects of the Primitive Church of Christ (few men of adequate information and honesty would assert that she is)--but that she is not--a portion of Christ's Body at all; that she is a dead branch of a Divine Tree, or a mere piece of State-contrivance. Secondly, he must satisfy himself that the Roman Catholic Church is--I do not say, a part of the Church of Christ, with errors and shortcomings, and also with blessings all her own (she is that beyond all doubt),--but that she alone is--the Holy Body; that she alone on earth represents, and that she represents adequately, to this generation, the fair form and pure countenance and unsullied soul of the Church of the Apostles. If a man says that he has been able to overcome what appear to be the absolutely insuperable difficulties which lie against deciding these points in the Roman sense, we can only feel surprise and regret; but it is quite in order that he should proceed to strengthen his motives to action by the instance of Jonah. But until he has done this; until he has thus satisfied himself, as far as he can, that God's Will really does point in the same direction as his personal impulse; to appeal to Jonah, or to other examples of obeying or disobeying real calls of God in Scripture, is to beg the whole question which ought to be at issue; it is to do, however unconsciously, a violence to the true teaching of Scripture, and to play a trick of a very serious kind with the conscience itself.
And if Jonah's case has no bearings upon those who are hesitating, on adequate grounds, as to the path of duty; still less does it say anything to those who are conscientiously satisfied that God has not called them to the duty which Jonah's example is employed to recommend.
A man is invited to accept some work for which he believes himself to be unfitted. It is a great and noble work; it is pressed upon him by persons who have high claims to respect and deference at his hands; it addresses itself not merely to his imagination, to his ambition, to his spirit of enterprise, but to higher things in him than these, to his love of God and of his fellow-men, to his desire to do good in his generation. But he knows himself not to be the right man for it. It is not merely that he has a general sense of unworthiness to undertake that or anything else, such as is professed, conventionally by everybody, and sincerely by good men, on all similar occasions: but he is conscious of particular deficiencies, and of particular positive features of his character, which make it certain that he must fail, if he attempts that specific work. This being so, whatever authority may say to him, he would fall below the commercial level of morality if he were to undertake the work in question; since such an undertaking implies an engagement on his part to produce certain results, which he knows himself to be distinctly unable to produce, in consequence of those defects or tendencies upon which he can lay his finger, and which incapacitate him for doing so. It is easy to say that we ought to trust to the grace of God to make up the deficiency: but, in ordinary cases of this sort, grace perfects natural tendencies, it does not create powers which do not exist in a natural germinal form. His friends may say, You are Jonah, and that is your Nineveh. But if Jonah had been unable to walk or to use his voice, either a miracle would have been wrought, or he would not have been sent on his errand. In all such cases the real question to be answered before all others is, whether the man has been called to this work by God at all? Of every such call there are two component parts--the outward voice and pressure of authority or circumstance, and the inward response and ratification of the conscience. Where this last is not found, there God has not as yet really spoken; and it is not found, if men are honest with themselves, when they are conscious of specific incapacity to discharge duties which circumstances appear to thrust upon them.
But if this history may be easily misapplied, it is much more likely in our day to be neglected altogether. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the moral value of such a history, whether for the purposes of warning or of encouragement.
Wherever the path of duty is clear, and it is deserted for some reason that seems to have a great deal in it, but that will not meet the Eye of God--or for no real reason at all,--there the moral features of Jonah's history, under different outward circumstances, repeat themselves.
Take the case of a clergyman who has reached middle life, and whose conscience distinctly tells him that he ought to do more for God's glory than he has done yet. He sees now for the first time what his office really implies, but he is attracted by some private and secular opinion or taste, which turns him aside from obedience to God's voice within him. After all, he says to himself, there are other ways of doing good; it is possible to do good with less of professional narrowness, and more of a broad human spirit than in the clerical life. Possibly, as with Jonah, the patriot within him becomes the foe of the prophet: he will serve his country in this world, and let others help his countrymen, if they can, towards the next. He resolves, as the phrase is, to "give up being a clergyman." Of course, he cannot really forego his responsibilities, or erase from his soul the indelible stamp of his consecration to God's service, any more than he can scratch out the ineffaceable marks of his baptismal privileges. Before God and His Angels, throughout eternity as in time, for weal or in woe, he is an ordained man; the gifts and calling of God being in this, as in other ways, without recall and repentance. But doubtless as far as the world goes, he can, if he so desires, forego all that proclaims his spiritual character; he can dress like a layman, talk like a layman, betake himself, so far as the law will allow, to lay occupations, and distinguish himself even among laymen by his ostentatiously anti-clerical tastes. In other words, he can "fly to Tarshish" from being before the Lord as His servant and minister. Happy, indeed, if he is not permitted to reach his goal; happy if, overtaken by a tempest of adverse circumstances, he is thrown in his agony into a retirement which buries him for a while away from the face of man, and enables him to commune with his God, and to understand his inalienable responsibilities, in full view of the realities of life and death. Better, doubtless, it were never to have fled to Tarshish; but if the error have been made, the storm and the whale's belly are but pledges of a Love Which will not leave him to himself.
Or take the somewhat analogous case of a younger man who has formed a serious intention of serving God in Holy Orders, and in such a mind comes up to this University. He has had no other plan for life; the desire has been strongest in him in his best and holiest moments; his natural dispositions, the wishes of his parents, and, above all, his sense of the solemnity of life, and of the majesty and necessity of revealed Truth, have moulded his purpose. When he has heard of the poverty and crime which are distancing the best efforts of modern society to overtake them, and others have talked of social science such call there are two component parts--the outward voice and pressure of authority or circumstance, and the inward response and ratification of the conscience. Where this last is not found, there God has not as yet really spoken; and it is not found, if men are honest with themselves, when they are conscious of specific incapacity to discharge duties which circumstances appear to thrust upon them.
But if this history may be easily misapplied, it is much more likely in our day to be neglected altogether. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the moral value of such a history, whether for the purposes of warning or of encouragement.
Wherever the path of duty is clear, and it is deserted for some reason that seems to have a great deal in it, but that will not meet the Eye of God--or for no real reason at all,--there the moral features of Jonah's history, under different outward circumstances, repeat themselves.
Take the case of a clergyman who has reached middle life, and whose conscience distinctly tells him that he ought to do more for God's glory than he has done yet. He sees now for the first time what his office really implies, but he is attracted by some private and secular opinion or taste, which turns him aside from obedience to God's voice within him. After all, he says to himself, there are other ways of doing good; it is possible to do good with less of professional narrowness, and more of a broad human spirit than in the clerical life. Possibly, as with Jonah, the patriot within him becomes the foe of the prophet: he will serve his country in this world, and let others help his countrymen, if they can, towards the next. He resolves, as the phrase is, to "give up being a clergyman." Of course, he cannot really forego his responsibilities, or erase from his soul the indelible stamp of his consecration to God's service, any more than he can scratch out the ineffaceable marks of his baptismal privileges. Before God and His Angels, throughout eternity as in time, for weal or in woe, he is an ordained man; the gifts and calling of God being in this, as in other ways, without recall and repentance. But doubtless as far as the world goes, he can, if he so desires, forego all that proclaims his spiritual character; he can dress like a layman, talk like a layman, betake himself, so far as the law will allow, to lay occupations, and distinguish himself even among laymen by his ostentatiously anti-clerical tastes. In other words, he can "fly to Tarshish" from being before the Lord as His servant and minister. Happy, indeed, if he is not permitted to reach his goal; happy if. overtaken by a tempest of adverse circumstances, he is thrown in his agony into a retirement which buries him for a while away from the face of man, and enables him to commune with his God, and to understand his inalienable responsibilities, in full view of the realities of life and death. Better, doubtless, it were never to have fled to Tarshish; but if the error have been made, the storm and the whale's belly are but pledges of a Love Which will not leave him to himself.
Or take the somewhat analogous case of a younger man who has formed a serious intention of serving God in Holy Orders, and in such a mind comes up to this University. He has had no other plan for life; the desire has been strongest in him in his best and holiest moments; his natural dispositions, the wishes of his parents, and, above all, his sense of the solemnity of life, and of the majesty and necessity of revealed Truth, have moulded his purpose. When he has heard of the poverty and crime which are distancing the best efforts of modern society to overtake them, and others have talked of social science of economical statistics, of new efforts at legislation, a voice within him has said clearly, distinctly, Arise, go unto Nineveh. When, turning the eye of his soul within, he has observed the various evidences of an indestructible life-principle, and has reflected upon the priceless value of one undying soul--his own--or on the responsibilities of each towards all, and of all towards each; the word has come to him, saying, Arise, go unto Nineveh. And when, looking out of and away from himself, he has beheld Jesus Christ our Lord dying upon the Cross of Shame, dying for him as for all, "that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto Him That died for them, and rose again;" the word of the Lord has been again heard within his soul, Arise, go unto Nineveh. If he can trust any instinct for good, if he can trust any clear intimation of destiny, if he can surrender himself to any certain verdict of conscience, he is bound to devote himself to the spiritual work of the Church of Christ.
He comes to Oxford, hoping to find nothing but sympathy, encouragement, guidance, for all the noblest and highest aspirations within him. But a voice here whispers to him too often,--in a less religious spirit than Jonah's political theories,--and certainly not in the spirit of the Word of God to Jonah: "Is it not better to live for this world of which we are sure, than for the next world, which at best is a matter of speculation? Is it not a greater distinction to wear the livery of an earthly service than that of a clerical caste? Are not the clergy--the country clergy--wanting in breadth and culture? Do they not pass their lives between district visitors, and coal-tickets, and blanket-societies, and soup-distributions, and the visits of school-inspectors and missionary deputations, and church decorations, and the infinite pettinesses and details of village or country-town life? Is it not better to sit loosely to theological systems, or rather to sit above them; to do good in a general unprofessional way; to be less clerical and more human; to take a practical view of life, which shall leave theology with all its encumbrances of sentiment and passion to minds of a lower and narrower make?" Why, after all, should he go to Nineveh; why not go down at once to Joppa, and pay his fare, and embark for Tarshish?
And so ten or fifteen or twenty years pass by; he is in the midst of the sea of life, with all its interest, but with all its liabilities. "They that go down to that sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters, these men see the works of the Lord and His wonders in the deep. For at His Word the stormy wind ariseth which lifteth up the waves thereof: they go up to the heaven and down again to the deep; their soul melteth away because of the trouble." Happy and blessed, indeed, are such when it is so; when a great reverse of fortune, or a bitter heartache, or an illness which makes death and judgment realities, forces them into retreat from the mistakes to which they have surrendered themselves, and to real converse with God. It may be too late then really to attempt what might have been easy in early years; it may be impossible, when the shadows are lengthening year by year upon the plain, to set out for Nineveh. Yet failure in trying to do right is better than inaction; and an intention to serve God than a wish, more or less disguised, to forget Him.
But Jonah need not be a clergyman; and Nineveh may represent other than clerical fields of work. Jonah may be an eldest son, whom God has blessed with a large property, perhaps in Ireland, and to whose soul He has whispered, that this property, which enables him to be of use to hundreds, perhaps to thousands of poor people, has grave responsibilities. The possession of this property enables him to do that which no steward, no relative, can do for him; this property, and his work in it and for it, is his Nineveh. He has, he can have, no doubt about the outward or the inward elements of his call. God speaks to him both through circumstances, and in the sanctuary of conscience, with equal clearness.
Now suppose him to try to persuade himself that some other line of life, which may have undoubted claims upon others, but which involves his leaving the care of his property to relatives or officials, is the best for him; what is this but a fleeing to Tarshish from being before the Lord? For, layman as he is, this young man is also a prophet; he occupies a position which enables him to insist upon many great moral and spiritual truths before a large circle of people, who will receive them with the same attention and interest from the lips of no other human being. If he foregoes this duty, through an error of self-will; if he leaves the truth unsaid and the good undone, which he, of all men, might best, if not alone, say and do, he is treading most certainly in the footsteps of Jonah. It may be that life will flow on smoothly and prosperously with him, and that he will grow old without finding out the truth; but it will be better for him if it be otherwise. It will be better for him far, if some great failure or misfortune leads him to review his responsibilities as God's Providence defines them; and if, while he yet has life and health to do so, he arises and goes to his Nineveh, at the word of the Lord.
Jonah's history is full of solemn warning; but it is also full of encouragement. It sheds light upon the meaning of a great deal of the suffering which meets us in life. Of the pain which we witness around us, some is purely penal, some belongs to our moral education, some to mysteries of the Divine government which we shall never fathom in this life. But a large department of human pain comes under the same category as the chastisement of Jonah. By a reverse of fortune, or the death of a near relative, or a severe illness, God stops men on their voyage towards some self-chosen Tarshish: He plunges them beneath the waves of adversity while yet He provides an asylum in which their moral life is preserved, in which they may turn to Him in penitence and sincerity. Oh! blessed mystery of His Providence, often witnessed, but little understood, when the barrier of self-will, in all its forms, is gradually but firmly broken down in the soul, and at length there is one prayer stronger and more frequent than any other--a Christian paraphrase of the prayer of Jonah:--
"Wash me, and dry these bitter tears,
O let my heart no further roam,
'Tis Thine by vows, and hopes, and fears,
Long since--O call Thy wanderer home;
To that dear home, safe in Thy wounded Side,
Where only broken hearts their sin and shame may hide."
[The Christian Year; Good Friday.]
But to understand these great truths, the solemnity of life, the tremendous power which we each and all possess of throwing it away, the reality of God's guidance in it, if we will look out for tokens of His Will within and without us, and the blessedness of all suffering which brings us after wilful error to our senses, we must do that which is difficult at the outset of life, we must place ourselves, in thought, at its close.
It is when the clouds are gathering, hour by hour, more and more thickly over the sky of time, when the pulse of strength is sensibly ebbing, and the distant horizons of eternity are coming more and more distinctly each moment into view, that the real importance of the lessons of Jonah's history become apparent. It is in those hours, hours they must be of dread perplexity, if they are not hours of resigned hope, that a voice like that of the Tyrian seamen whispers to conscience over some great mistake, then seen first by the soul in its true proportions, Why hast thou done this? It is too late to prescribe self-humiliation and self-punishment, when the margin of life leaves no room for sacrifices, such as might retrieve the unfaithfulness of the past. God may indeed see and accept a pure intention; but it is surely better not to risk an anxiety of which the event may well be doubtful. God grant that we may pray Him sincerely to show us each "the way that we should walk, since we lift up our souls unto Him;" and that when His promise, "I will inform thee and teach thee in the way wherein thou shalt go, and I will guide thee with Mine eye," is made good to us, we may indeed discern His guidance and obey it.