Readings: Jonah ch. 4; Hebrews ch. 10
You may have noticed that there is one word which is repeated in those two chapters which have just been read, and by a happy coincidence that same word is also repeated in our first reading for the day. This word brings us very close indeed to the memory of the One whom we meet to remember especially this morning. The word also reminds us vividly of our natural humble estate, and yet it speaks to us of God's merciful provision both today and, God willing, within the Kingdom.
So then will you look please at Job 3.3. This will give us the background to the feelings of Job. "Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived. Let that day be darkness; let not God regard it from above, neither let the light shine upon it." So great was the measure of the humiliation and suffering of this faithful servant of Deity that in verse 5 he could declare: "Let darkness and the shadow of death stain it; let a cloud dwell upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it."
The word, then, which we sung in our second hymn (No. 3) and which appears in each of our readings is the word "shadow", the Hebrew "tsal". The word obviously has different connotations. There is the literal shadow, there is the shadow of death, and there is also the figurative shadow which the apostle said was cast by the Law long since past.
There is much to think about in relation to this word and its use. Job had every reason to regret the day of his birth because of all those adverse circumstances recorded earlier in these chapters. Apart from his faith and his wife, everything else had been taken from him. His health and his wealth, his flocks and his family had all gone: not over a long period, so that he could become accustomed to this series of privations and vicissitudes; no, it was on a certain day that messenger after messenger had come to him and urgently delivered the growing and sad tale of mounting disaster. Little wonder then that in the light of all that had happened to him within such a short time Job desired the shadow of death to pass over the day of his birth. To him, despite his faith, life was blighted. His purposeful and meaningful endeavour seemed to be over. His personal stability and sense of direction had been thrown off balance.
Now this phrase that he uses does not only appear in this chapter, as we have said, but it also appears in other places in the book of Job. Turn over to the 10th chapter and see how he there again expresses the same idea. Verse 20: "Are not my days few? Cease then, and let me alone, that I may take comfort a little, before I go whence I shall not return, even to the land of darkness and the shadow of death; a land of darkness, as darkness itself; and of the shadow of death, without any order, and where the light is as darkness."
Other references occur in this book, actually a total of ten times in all. So then, can we not detect a complete breakdown in his health? He had utterly despaired. Only his burning faith remained. In a certain sense he felt like Jonah of our second reading. Here too was a case of a man who sought a certain shadow as a relief, not this time the shadow of death but from the intensity of the eastern sun. Turn again to that chapter that we read and see the word used in this particular context. Jonah 4.3. Because the matters of chapter 3.10 affected Jonah, and because God repented of the evil He said He was going to do to those Ninevites, Jonah was displeased exceedingly, and so he said, verse 3: "Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live." So verse 5, "Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city." "It is better for me to die than to live."
How interesting, then, that this word should be thus found in each of our readings. What a curious comparison we have, too: God's servants Jonah and Job both desiring that they might die. Jonah had to learn, however, the Divine viewpoint. He had to master a certain understanding of the ways of God not common to man. Verse 9: "And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death. Then said the Lord, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in anight." Then the Divine wisdom explained: "Should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?" God's mercy expressed to Jonah despite his defection, and now shown also to these many in Nineveh.
The position of the world at large today is very much as those men of Nineveh. It is admirably expressed by Job. It reflects, as it were, the attitude of the men and women of the world, be they in Nineveh or be they in the great city of London where now we dwell.
Turn back to the book of Job, chapter 24, and see how he sums up the situation of the people by whom he was surrounded. Verse 1: "Why", he said, "seeing times are not hidden from the Almighty, do they that know him not see his days? Some remove the landmarks; they violently take away flocks, and feed thereof. They drive away the aSs of the fatherless, they take the widow's ox for a pledge. They turn the needy out of the way: the poor of the earth hide themselves together. Behold, as wild asses in the desert, go they forth to their work; rising betimes for a prey: the wilderness yieldeth food for them and for their children." That is the attitude of mind of the great majority of mankind.
Divine condemnation, however, oftentimes has been visited upon the wickedness of men. They cannot escape, in the final sense, that great punishment that God has laid upon the wicked. Turn to chapter 34.20. Notice the enlightenment of even Elihu: "In a moment shall they die, and the people shall be troubled at midnight, and pass away: and the mighty shall be taken away without hand. For his eyes are upon the ways of man, and he seeth all his goings. There is no darkness, nor shadow of death, where the workers of iniquity may hide themselves. For he will not lay upon man more than right; that he should enter into judgment with God."
How powerful, in passing, is this great lesson to us. As we have reminded ourselves many times on these occasions, we cannot escape the all-seeing eye of the Most High. How greatly, then, does this thought emphasise the need to gain and to hold Divine wisdom, to appreciate at all times the Divine point of view and the Divine assessment of certain sets of circumstances. How essential it is, knowing the eyes of the LORD run to and fro, that we should always follow the Divine code. Thus in chapter 28 Job said, verse 1: "Surely there is a vein for the silver, and a place for gold where they fine it. Iron is taken out of the earth, and brass is molten out of the stone." Yes, there are some things which man can discern after God has hidden these great treasures in the earth; but, verse 3: "He setteth an end to darkness, and searcheth out all perfection: the stones of darkness, and the shadow of death." Verse 12: "But where shall wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding?" Verse 16: "It cannot be valued with the gold of Ophir, with the precious onyx, or the sapphire. The gold and the crystal cannot equal it: and the exchange of it shall not be for jewels of fine gold." Verse 22: "Destruction and death say, We have heard the fame thereof with our ears. God understandeth the way thereof, and he knoweth the place thereof."
Job knew—it comes out so vividly and so poignantly during his discourses and his answers to those who accused him—that there was one, the Most High, who could reverse his every distressing circumstance. Chapter 12.22 expresses his burning faith: "He (God) discovereth deep things out of darkness, and bringeth out to light the shadow of death. He increaseth the nations, and destroyeth them: he enlargeth the nations, and straiteneth them again. He taketh away the heart of the chief of the people of the earth, and causeth them to wander in a wilderness where there is no way. They grope in the dark without light, and he maketh them to stagger like a drunken man."
Job then—as we see from his words—believed in his God. He accepted implicitly the hope implied in the promise of the Redeemer. "I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God." Job then had a great lesson to learn, in common with all God's children. There has to be manifest in the attitude and daily life of each one an utter dependence, not on themselves, nor their rulers, nor their skills, nor their resources, but on their Maker. There was no point in putting trust in princes, nor in the son of man in whom there was no help. This could provide no solution to the eternal problem posed by the shadow. God alone could bring lasting happiness and unlock for ever the door of the tomb and banish the shadow that affected the race. God alone is the One who, in the words of the Psalmist, could bring them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and break their bands asunder.
How then can this miracle—for such indeed it is—be achieved, of the resurrection of a great community, of the loosing of the shackles of the great aggressor? Well, Paul told us in that chapter which we read together from Hebrews. Turn to it again, and against this somewhat sombre background turn to the hope expressed by the apostle in that chapter. Hebrews 10.4: "For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins." No, those shadows were totally ineffective in solving the great problem. So then, verse 5: "Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith," (notice the authority) "Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me."
The Lord Jesus Christ, the One whom we now meet especially to remember, the body prepared, the symbols of which to us are the bread and the wine. How gracious was our Lord, how obedient was he to every aspect of the Divine requirements.
How closely linked, then, are our readings in showing the way whereby the effects of the final shadow should one day be abolished for ever by the death of our dear Lord as the perfect sacrifice for sin.
Where do we stand, then, in relation to the shadow known so well to Jonah and to Job, and to the hope expressed by the apostle? Well, all of us live and move within the shadow. Like the teeming millions outside, none of us knows, humanly speaking, when the end shall be.
We may put it from us, we may live in what they call the highlights of life we may, like Jonah, travel far and wide, not necessarily in the sense of escapism but away from those things which centre around the truths of these emblems, but whether we do or whether we do not, humanly speaking one day that shadow will fall in our direction and that darkness will come. In youth and vigour, in prime and prosperity the days of the shadow may seem far distant, but not for ever shall this be so. There can come a time when it could be said: "This night thy soul shall be required of thee."
Whilst none of us would wish to dwell upon this subject, yet we must necessarily from time to time, when our readings bid us, reflect upon the true nature of our human estate. Yet we can also remember, as we gather around these emblems, that in reality we need to recall a certain death which has brought for us the prospect of joy, of emancipation and of the gift of everlasting life. That is the great reality of our faith in relation to the death of our Lord. It is for the benefit of those who walked in the valley of the shadow of death that salvation has been brought in Jesus Christ.
What did Paul say in this chapter, verse 19? Despite the background, despite the apparent situation in which the lives of God's children are cast, verse 19: "Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having an high priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water."
Could a more powerful exhortation be epitomised more briefly than in those words that the apostle uses here? Let us, then, each one allow that certain cleansing process to have its full and due effect upon us, before we partake of these emblems which speak of the way whereby the shadow has been made to flee away.
We cannot, however, close our exhortation without pressing home the full force of those words of the apostle which fall to us also in our reading. Let us pay urgent and diligent heed to the counsel of verse 26: "For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries." Powerful, solemn words. The background, verse 28: "He that despised Moses* law died without mercy under two or three witnesses." There was plenty of evidence within the framework of the Law of the judicial severity of God against wickedness exhibited in the individual lives of His children.
So then, the counsel, stirringly given, verse 29: "Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?" The words are solemn. They surely cause us to ponder, to inspect deeply the recesses of our human frail heart. The shadows of the outer darkness into which the rejected will be cast are surely too terrible for us to contemplate. It will truly be "a fearful thing," as verse 31 declares, "to fall into the hands of the living God" for judicial punishment.
What then, in the light of those truths we have examined emerging from our readings, what is the clarion call to wisdom, to action, to purity and to endeavour which comes to each one of us who are called to be the children of light and who wait for the glorious inheritance of the saints when a great community shall be glorified? Turn back to the words of another of the prophets and allow these words ringing down the centuries to give us much food for thought and counsel. Turn back to the prophecy of Amos and listen to his words in relation to our general theme and closing exhortation. Amos 5.8. This was the counsel of the prophet, not only to those in his day but to all who have had opportunity, like ourselves this day, to consider his words: "Seek him that maketh the seven stars and Orion, and turneth the shadow of death into the morning, and maketh the day dark with night: that calleth for the waters of the sea, and poureth them out upon the face of the earth: The Lord is his name." That is the One whom we should seek day by day in prayer for strength and for guidance.
Verse 6: "Seek ye the Lord, and ye shall live." How simple is the formula whereby we may gain Divine acceptance and that great gift of everlasting life. "Seek ye the Lord and ye shall live." The shadows banished, the human circumstance past for ever, and instead everlasting life. Psalm 17.8 is our prayer, which can bring for us the great release: "Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings" Verse 15: "As, for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness.":— G. T. Atkinson