Death in the Pot

by Glenn Conjurske

It were hard to choose between zeal without knowledge, and knowledge without zeal. The former may poison us, while the latter may starve us, and in either case we die. Knowledge without zeal, if it do little good, will at any rate do little harm, and this is perhaps to be preferred over death in the pot.

These reflections are of course suggested by the man who gathered the wild gourds, and shred them into the pot, though he knew them not.

“And Elisha came again to Gilgal: and there was a dearth in the land; and the sons of the prophets were sitting before him: and he said unto his servant, Set on the great pot, and seethe pottage for the sons of the prophets. And one went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine, and gathered thereof wild gourds his lap full, and came and shred them into the pot of pottage: for they knew them not. So they poured out for the men to eat. And it came to pass, as they were eating of the pottage, that they cried out, and said, O thou man of God, there is death in the pot. And they could not eat thereof.” (II Kings 4:38-40).

“One” went out into the field, to gather herbs. He was no Elisha—-no Moses or Samuel or Peter or Paul—-nobody whose name has ever been heard of, but merely “one,” unnamed and unknown. Yet with many another such a “one,” he thought more highly of himself than he ought to think, supposed the prosperity of the work was dependent upon his efforts, and was ever ready to run without being sent. Only let the command go forth from Elisha “unto his servant,” “Set on the great pot,” and off he goes to find something with which to fill it. He has no consciousness that he might not be fit for such a work. He takes his own fitness for granted, and is ready to enter the first open door which presents itself. He is zealous and industrious. He is doubtless a good man, one of the sons of the prophets. He is not afraid of labor, for he goes far afield in the time of drought in search of food.

But the young man was as rash as he was zealous. Nothing is more common than this. Zeal is one of the most dangerous of virtues. Zeal and rashness naturally take to each other. And rashness, as nearly as I can tell, is always the fruit of pride. Zeal and pride are common companions. Love and pride repel each other. Humility and pride cannot agree. Meekness and pride face opposite ways. But zeal and pride naturally take to each other, and zeal, therefore, is one of the most dangerous of virtues. It needs to be closely watched. It needs a tight rein. With the best of intentions, it will do the worst of deeds.

So did the young man who gathered the wild gourds, and shred them into the pot. All his intent was to feed the people, not to poison them. But he was rash. He used no caution. He was rash because he was proud and self-sufficient. He had gone “out into the field” in search of herbs. It was a time of dearth, and herbs were scarce. But what singular good fortune was this? Behold, a fine-looking vine, laden with fruit. The gourds were doubtless as “pleasant to the eyes” as they were abundant, for gourds commonly put good squash and pumpkins to shame for their appearance. The young man was thrilled with his find, and doubtless supposed the people would be also. He would be commended for bringing in such an abundant supply in the time of dearth. He therefore asks no counsel and makes no inquiry, but gathers his lap full, and forthwith shreds them into the pot.

All this had been good work indeed, if he had gathered common herbs which were known to be good for food, but as for these wild gourds, “they knew them not.” Knew them not, and yet shred them forthwith into the pot. The young man is evidently much more intent upon the glory of his ministry, than upon the good of the people.

And the church of God is full of men of just this stamp, who feed the people of God with doctrines as unwholesome as this man’s gourds. They are as zealous in searching for their doctrines as this man was in finding his gourds. They love the Greek and Hebrew texts, and the learned lexicons. They have a penchant for anything unusual. Common garden vegetables are altogether too tame for them. They must have something wild, something which has never been seen in a garden, something which comes from the untilled field, and above all, something which they have discovered themselves. For all this they will scour the papyri and the dead sea scrolls, the Greek and Latin fathers and the heathen poets, ancient history and archaeology, the Delphic oracles and the Babylonian soothsayers, hunting for some new turn of meaning which they may put upon some Greek or Hebrew term, in order by any means to find some new insight which will set aside the common interpretation or the common doctrines, or add some new light to the dim theology of their forefathers. With these wild gourds they fill their lap full. No harm done yet, except to themselves, but they cannot stop here. They must proceed immediately to shred their wild gourds into the pot. They ask no counsel of their superiors—-probably do not so much as suspect that they have any superiors. They do not inquire whether their new insight be not an old error, which was refuted long ago by Martin Luther or Richard Baxter. They do not inquire whether it will stand with the analogy of Scripture, nor with the dictates of common sense. They have found these gourds themselves, and like Tischendorf with his newly discovered Sinaiticus, they very much overvalue them, and can scarcely wait to give their discovery to the world. We all tend to overvalue our own discoveries, but wise men learn to check and moderate that inclination, and humble men are diffident of their own findings. This young man, however, had neither wisdom nor humility. Into the pot, therefore, go the gourds. And he has a multitude of successors in the church of God. They consider nothing of the effects which their doctrine is likely to have upon those who imbibe it. They really have no capacity to understand those effects. The doctrine is their own child, and they love it as the apple of their eye. They can scarcely wait to preach it, or to set it forth at length in a great book with their name on the title page.

All this is the way of rash zeal. Yet all this folly might be spared, if men would but ask counsel of their superiors. The death in the pot might have been spared, if the young man had but asked counsel. There must have been somebody present who understood the poisonous nature of these wild gourds. As soon as the men began to eat, it was immediately ascertained by somebody that there was death in the pot. Not that anybody felt the symptoms of the death itself, for that must have been somewhat slow in its working. No one dropped dead at the first bite, yet someone knew that there was death in the pot. This they knew by its smell, its taste, its texture, or its appearance. Some experienced man could tell both that there were wild gourds in the pot, and that those wild gourds were deadly. He might have told the young man this before the gourds were shred into the pot, but the young man did not ask. It had never entered his mind to ask, for he was as foolish as he was self-sufficient and zealous.

That zeal is a valuable commodity we have no doubt. Yet in this day of prevailing lukewarmness, we are apt to set a higher value upon it than it deserves. The time was when I would value a man on the sole basis of his zeal, but that time is past. Long experience has taught me that the more zealous a man is, the more cautious I ought to be of him. It may be that the less zeal a man has, the less likely he is to do good, but ’tis also true that the more zeal he has, the more likely he is to do harm. The lukewarm and lazy shred no wild gourds into the pot. Where I once looked for zeal, I now look first for humility. Zeal without humility is perhaps more dangerous than zeal without knowledge. But give me a humble, loving man, and the more zeal he has, the better.

Glenn Conjurske