“See, I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant.”
The prophet's commission consists of two parts, a negative part
—-“to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down” —-and a positive part —-“to build, and to plant.” A little child may see that the negative part comes first, and that there is twice as much of it. Some have objected to my saying so, contending that it is not valid to attach any significance to the number or the order of the things listed. Yet I have no doubt that if the number and order were reversed —-if the positive were listed first, and in twice the quantity —-they would not hesitate to attach a great deal of importance to it. Their real difficulty seems to be not so much that we insist upon the negative first, and in twice the quantity, but that we insist upon it at all. The one-sided theology of the modern church —-with its emphasis all on the side of love, grace, mercy, and forbearance —-and the worldly spirit of the modern church —-full of softness and compromise —-have combined together to give to modern evangelicalism a strong dislike for all negative preaching, or “negativism,” as they call it. Yet this is the preaching which God requires of his prophets.
Such a commission takes for granted, of course, that the earth is filled with things which need to be rooted out and pulled down and destroyed and thrown down, and filled also with people who “love to have it so.” Were it not for people who are wrong, things would be right. But there is a constant downward tendency in everything which sinful man touches
—-a constant tendency to build up the wrong, and allow the right to go to decay. This is due not only to the wickedness of the wicked, but also to the ignorance and carelessness of the godly. This is plainly seen in I Cor. 3:9-17, which reads:
“For we are labourers together with God: ye are God's husbandry [that is, God's field or garden], ye are God's building. According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereupon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble, every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire, and the fire shall try every man's work, of what sort it is. If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire. Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man destroy the temple of God, him shall God destroy.”
There are not two classes of works spoken of here, but three:
“If any man's work abide,” verse 14.
“If any man's work shall be burned,” verse 15.
“If any man destroy the temple of God,” verse17.
Corresponding to these three sorts of works, there are three distinct outcomes. As for the first, “he shall receive a reward.” As for the second, “he shall suffer loss, but he himself shall be saved.” As for the third, “him shall God destroy.”
In the last of these three we see the wicked, who purposely oppose and destroy the work of God. In the other two classes we see the godly, sincerely laboring to build up the temple of God. Some of them do solid and enduring work, and are rewarded for it. Others build with wood, hay, and stubble. They themselves are saved, but their work is worthless. The day of judgement shall declare it to be worthless, but for the present, on the earth, the wood, hay, and stubble which they have built into the temple of God remains, and stands along with the gold, the silver, and the precious stones. For this cause there is a constant need, even among the godly, of prophets of God, “to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down.”
Yet how few are the true prophets of God who have graced the history of the earth! How rare in any period the men like Menno Simons and John Wesley, who both could and would stand against the prevailing corruptions of the age! Many even of the best and greatest of men have very largely failed to carry out the prophet's commission. They have by-passed the negative portion of the commission, and proceeded prematurely to building and planting. They have been zealous enough to build up the walls of Jerusalem, but they have seen no necessity to remove the “much rubbish” which filled the place. (Neh. 4:10). They have endeavored to build up the wall in the midst of the rubbish, or upon the rubbish.
The reasons for this failure are essentially two: incapacity, and unwillingness.
First, incapacity. It is a rare thing to find a man who is able to fulfill the prophetic office. In the nature of the case a prophet must be able to see farther and more clearly than those around him. How is this to be attained? He comes into a temple in which wood, hay, and stubble have been accepted the same as gold, silver, and precious stones
—-in which rubble is used for building material, and defended by the elders of Israel. He is taught to “interpret” the Scriptures in such a way as to maintain the prevailing errors —-and taught so in all probability by men who are better than himself. He is taught the traditions of the elders along with the word of God, and it usually happens that in the practical workings of things the traditions of the elders are given precedence over the word of God. The word of God must be interpreted so as to conform to the traditions, and very rarely do we meet with a man who has the ability to see through the sophistries by which error is maintained. Few ever see beyond the system in which they have been bred.
This is remarkably illustrated by a conversation I had some years ago. I worked with a man who belonged to a Calvinistic church, and was of course a Calvinist. Just after he was converted, two men from this church had knocked on his door, and he was led by them into the Calvinistic church, and so into the Calvinistic system. I was endeavoring to convince him that there was no real faith or spiritual understanding in his holding the system he held, but that he held it because his teachers did, in the same way a Mormon holds the doctrines of Mormonism. To that end I asked him, “If two Arminians instead of two Calvinists had come to your door after you were converted, and you had been led by them into an Arminian church, would you be a Calvinist today?” He looked genuinely surprised that I would ask such a thing, and replied, “Why, no. I'd be an Arminian!” Now it was my turn to be surprised. I had hardly expected so ready and frank an admission of what I nevertheless believed to be the truth. But he seemed to have not the shadow of a notion that there was anything amiss in such a state of things.
And no wonder, for this is the general, the well-nigh universal state of things. Who is able to rise above it? Only the man who possesses, as Caleb did (Num. 14:24), “another spirit” from that which prevails among his contemporaries. That other spirit consists of whole-hearted devotedness to the cause of God. It is the spirit that purges out laziness and lukewarmness, and cultivates zeal and single-eyed faithfulness. It is the spirit which hungers and thirsts for the power and blessing of God, and labors and travails to obtain it. It is the spirit which seeks for knowledge and understanding as for silver, and searches for wisdom as for hid treasure. The more a man possesses of this spirit, the more he sees of things which need to be rooted out, pulled down, destroyed, and thrown down, and thus the more capable he becomes of carrying out the prophetic commission.
But to be a prophet a man must be willing as well as able. Many who begin in a fair way to attain to a little of the discernment necessary to exercise the prophetic office, cool down and retrace their steps when the cost becomes apparent. They would rather “fellowship with other Christians” than stand alone for the truth. They would rather “work with other Christians” than pursue the lonely path of reproach and ostracism which belonged to Elijah and Jeremiah. Here a little and there a little they fail to stand for the things which would thrust them into that path. Here a little and there a little they sacrifice truth in order to maintain peace. They know well enough that if they were boldly to teach what they know to be the truth, the chair which they occupy in the seminary or Bible college would soon be declared vacant. They know well enough that if they were boldly to stand against such and such things, they would no longer be welcome to preach at such and such places. So they compromise the principles of truth in order to maintain their sphere of influence. They lack the single eye, and so little by little, by compromising and temporizing, they lose the truth which they knew, but for which they would not stand
—-and the light which is in them becomes darkness. They then preach a “positive message,” and oppose as divisive and legalistic the men who speak with the voice of a true prophet of God.
The cost to carry out the prophet's commission almost turned Jeremiah back to the same course of guilty silence. “For since I spake,” he says, “I cried out, I cried violence and spoil; because the word of the Lord was made a reproach unto me, and a derision daily. Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.” (Jer. 20:8-9). Strong as the temptation was to desist, yet Jeremiah was possessed of enough of that other spirit to impel him onward, and enable him to pay the price to speak as a prophet of God. That price was a great one, as appears in this his doleful lamentation: “ Woe is me, my mother, that thou hast borne me a man of strife and a man of contention to the whole earth! I have neither lent on usury, nor men have lent to me on usury; yet every one of them doth curse me.” (Jer. 15:10).
When a man sets himself in earnest to fulfill his God-given task of rooting out and pulling down and destroying and throwing down, it is almost inevitable that those who have no understanding of the issues involved will reproach him with being harsh and unloving. But it was no harsh spirit which moved Jeremiah. His soul was filled with pain and his eyes with tears over the defections of the people from the right way. He would have preached a “positive message” if he could have. When the other prophets began to preach a smooth, easy, “positive” message (Jer. 28:1-4), the heart of Jeremiah immediately responded with, “Amen! The Lord do so! The Lord perform thy words which thou hast prophesied!” (Verse 6). Yet he had spiritual sense enough to know very well that the positive message could not be true, and he therefore must immediately add, “Nevertheless, hear thou now this word that I speak in thine ears, and in the ears of all the people: the prophets that have been before me and before thee of old prophesied both against many countries, and against great kingdoms, of war, and of evil, and of pestilence. The prophet which prophesieth of peace, when the word of the prophet shall come to pass, then shall the prophet be known, that the Lord hath truly sent him.” (Vss. 7-9).
Jeremiah's message here is too plain to be mistaken: when a prophet comes with a “positive” message, and fails to lift up his voice against many, this fact alone presents a strong presumption that the Lord has not sent him. All the former prophets, with one voice, spoke hard things. And it is equally true that all of the false prophets have always spoken smooth, easy, “positive” things.
Four hundred false prophets stood before Ahab and preached smooth things to him, to tickle his ears. (I Kings 22:6). Micaiah alone would preach the truth, and of him the king said, “I hate him, for he doth not prophesy good concerning me, but evil.” (Verse 8). Yet Micaiah must be fetched, at the insistence of godly but infatuated Jehoshaphat. The messenger sent to fetch him, however, felt obliged to counsel him to preach a “positive” message: “And the messenger that was gone to call Micaiah spake unto him, saying, Behold now, the words of the prophets delcare good unto the king with one mouth: let thy word, I pray thee, be like the word of one of them, and speak that which is good.” (Verse 13).
Many since Micaiah's day have taken it upon themselves to counsel the prophets of God, and the counsel is always of the same character: “Be a little more careful not to offend the people. Leave such and such subjects alone. Be a little more positive in your preaching. Leave controversial and divisive things alone, and preach to edify.” That is to say, build and plant, but don't root out and pull down.
How vividly I remember being thus counselled, nearly a quarter of a century ago. I was preaching in a little church in a little town in Colorado, and the graduating high school students chose me to preach at their baccalaureate. The invitation hung as a millstone about my neck, for I knew very well that the school was the world, and I wanted nothing to do with it. Yet I knew the people expected it of me, and I very reluctantly (and I believe wrongly) agreed to do it, determining, however, at any rate to bear a faithful testimony
—-and it would have been such a testimony as the people would never have forgiven me for. But the messenger who gave me the invitation, the principal of the school, told me he wanted to see me before I preached. He evidently knew enough about me to know what to expect from me, and therefore he must counsel me. Said he, “We want something encouraging, about how human nature always triumphs,” and so forth. “Well,” said I (with all the firmness I could muster, for I was but a green youth, and he more than twice my age), “I'll tell you, I have only one message to preach. What the Bible says is what I preach.” In a moment his countenance was changed toward me, and such animosity I have seldom seen on a human face. He discharged me from the unwelcome task of preaching at the baccalaureate, and engaged a Baptist preacher from a neighboring town, who preached to them nothing either good or bad.
Unfortunately, most of this kind of counsel comes to the prophets from the godly, or those who profess to be so. The greatest prophets usually receive the most counsel, and usually from those who are the least fit to give it. “We are already,” says C. H. Spurgeon, “the best advised, instructed, lectured, bullied, persuaded, threatened, warned, denounced, be-rated, and scolded man in England.” “No man,” says Gipsy Smith, “gets more advice than I do or takes less notice of it.” And his biographer adds, “The old phrase, `water off a duck's back' seems to apply particularly in his case. Probably that is one reason for his success: he has done what he felt compelled to do, and said what he had to say. Those who have come to him to teach him his business
—-and they have been many —-have found him quite ready to defend himself.” This was not pride in the prophet of God, but rather a simple consciousness of the divine origin of his message and his commission, along with a clear understanding also of the character of the counsel and the counsellors.
The true prophet goes on in his God-given task of rooting out and pulling down and destroying and throwing down, in spite of all counsel from either the godly or the ungodly. He goes on in this course because simple faithfulness to God and to truth requires it of him. But he has another reason, perhaps equally weighty. He knows that little effectual building and planting will be accomplished without first rooting out and pulling down and destroying and throwing down. The Lord's prescription for effectual work is, “Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns.” (Jer. 4:3). It is as foolish to sow among thorns in God's garden as it would be to do the same in the garden in your back yard. The man who will work with everybody, preach in any church, plant in every thorn-filled garden, and build upon any and every shaky foundation or heap of rubble, does little more than pour water upon the earth
—-unless, of course, he goes into those situations to root out and pull down and destroy and throw down. This must be done not with harshness, but with conviction —-not with arrogance, but with authority —-not with a lash, but with love —-yet it must be done.
There were three prominent evangelists among the Baptists of America in the last century, A. B. Earle, Jacob Knapp, and Jabez Swan. Of the latter of these we read, “In some fields peculiar chronic difficulties were encountered. Both ministers and churches had long been negligent of discipline and the practical application of vital ecclesiastical principles. To use Mr. Swan's own illustration, they had plowed and cultivated the centre of the field, leaving a large margin on all sides, of bushes and briars, concealing the fence and furnishing a rendevous for serpents, insects and vermin, with an unmolested growth advancing toward the centre of the field. His idea was to plow up to the fence. Brush, vines, snakes and burrowing creatures belonged on the outside of the enclosure. But it was hard work to put the plow into these bosky, briery, serpent-haunted margins. Such courage met with opposition and not unfrequently with peril.”
When Nehemiah went to Jerusalem he found the city so filled with rubbish that “there was no place for the beast that was under me to pass.” (Neh. 2:14). He did not dream of building the wall upon the rubbish, yet this is exactly what those preachers do who leave negative preaching alone and proceed to building and planting. They build in very fact a wall which “if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall.” (Neh. 4:3). The rubbish which filled Jerusalem is a fit emblem of the human traditions, false doctrines, carnal weapons, and carnal practices which have filled the church during the most of her existence. The man who does solid and effectual building and planting is the man who first goes to work to remove the rubbish
—-to gather out the stones (Is. 5:2), to root out the thorns (Jer. 4:3) —-to root out and pull down and destroy and throw down.
Of course every man who engages in this business will be accused of being devisive, harsh, unloving, censorious, critical, judgemental, cynical, carping, fault-finding, condemnatory, captious, uncharitable, unbrotherly, and what not. Some men, of course, are so, but “what is the chaff to the wheat?” Jeremiah was none of this, but just the contrary. He was the weeping prophet. “Why,” he says, “is my pain perpetual, and my wound incurable?” (Jer. 15:18). He preached with a broken heart, and with tears flowing from his eyes. Whatever else he was, he was not harsh or unloving.
And real love does not deter a man from rooting out and pulling down and destroying and throwing down, but rather moves him to it. “Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.” (Heb. 12:6). “As many as I love I rebuke and chasten.” (Rev. 3:19). “He that spareth his rod hateth his son, but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” (Prov. 13:24). “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” (Prov. 27:6). This is the way of love, and there is no harshness in it. The wounds and chastening and scourging which a loving hand administers are no doubt painful to the person who receives them, but they are painful also to the person who administers them. Yet the cause which calls for the wounds is more painful still to him, and therefore he goes on with his unpleasant task of rooting out and pulling down and destroying and throwing down.
As for that “love” which fails or refuses to do these things, the plain fact is, there is more of the love of self in it than there is of love for the souls of men or the cause of Christ. It is love for my own reputation, my own ease, my own peace, my own position, my own sphere of influence, or my own salary, and it is the very thing which stands in the way of being a true prophet of God.