An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
It is of first importance that we learn to draw a sharp distinction between Divine punishment and Divine chastisement—important for maintaining the honor and glory of God, and for the peace of mind of the Christian. The distinction is very simple, yet is it often lost sight of. God’s people can never by any possibility be punished for their sins, for God has already punished them at the Cross. The Lord Jesus, our blessed Substitute, suffered the full penalty of all our guilt, hence it is written, "the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin"
(1 John 1:7). Neither the justice nor the love of God will permit Him to again exact payment of what Christ discharged to the full. The difference between punishment and chastisement lies not in the nature of the sufferings of the afflicted: it is most important to bear this in mind. There is a threefold distinction between the two.
First, the character in which God acts. In the former God acts as Judge, in the latter as Father. Sentence of punishment is the act of a judge, a penal sentence passed on those who are charged with guilt. Punishment can never fall upon a child of God in this judicial sense, because his guilt was all transferred to Christ: "Who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree." But while the believer’s sins cannot be punished, while the Christian cannot be condemned (Rom. 8:33), yet he may be chastised. The Christian occupies an entirely different position from the non-Christian: he is a member of the family of God. The relationship which now exists between him and God is that of Parent and child; and as a son he must be disciplined for wrong-doing. Folly is bound up in the hearts of all God’s children, and the rod is necessary to rebuke, to subdue, to humble.
The second distinction between Divine punishment and Divine chastisement lies in the recipients of each. The objects of the former are His enemies; the subjects of the latter, His children. As the Judge of all the earth God will yet take vengeance on all His foes; as the Father of His family God maintains discipline over all His children. The one is judicial, the other parental. A third distinction is seen in the design of each: the one is retributive, the other remedial. The one flows from His anger, the other from His love. Divine punishment is never sent for the good of sinners, but for the honoring of God’s law and the maintenance of His government. Divine chastisement is sent for the well-being of His children: "We have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but He for our profit, that we might be partakers of His holiness" (Heb. 12:9, 10).
The above distinctions should at once rebuke the thoughts which are so generally entertained among Christians. When the believer is smarting under the rod, let him not say, God is now punishing me for my sins. That can never be; that is most dishonoring to the blood of Christ. God is correcting thee in love, not smiting in wrath. Nor should the Christian regard the chastening of the Lord as a sort of necessary evil to which he must bow as submissively as possible. No, it proceeds from God’s goodness and faithfulness and is one of the greatest blessings for which we have to thank Him. Chastisement evidences our Divine sonship; the father of a family does not concern himself with those on the outside: but those within he guides and disciplines to make them conform to his will. Chastisement is designed for our good, to promote our highest interests. Look beyond the rod to the All-wise hand that wields it!
Unhappily there is no word in the English language which is capable of doing justice to the Greek term here. "Paideia" which is rendered "chastening" is only another form of "paidion" which signifies "young children, being the tender word that was employed by the Savior in John 21:5 and Hebrews 2:13. One can see at a glance the direct connection which exists between the words "disciple" and "discipline:" equally close in the Greek is the relation between "children" and "chastening"—son training would be better. It has reference to God’s education, nurture and discipline of His children. It is the Father’s wise and loving correction which is in view.
It is true that much chastisement is the rod in the hand of the Father correcting His erring child, but it is a serious mistake to confine our thoughts to this one aspect of the subject. Chastisement is by no means always God’s scourging of His refractory sons. Some of the saintliest of God’s people, some of the most obedient of His children, have been and are the greatest sufferers. Oft times God’s chastenings instead of being retributive are corrective. They are sent to empty us of self-sufficiency and self-righteousness; they are given to discover to us hidden transgressions, to teach us the plague of our own hearts. Or again; chastisements are sent to strengthen our faith, to raise us to higher levels of experience, to bring us into a condition of greater usefulness. Still again; Divine chastisement is sent as a preventative, to keep under pride, to save us from being unduly elated over success in God’s service. Let us consider, briefly, four entirely different examples.
David. In his case the rod was laid upon him for grievous sins, for open wickedness. His fall was occasioned by self-confidence and self-righteousness. If the reader will diligently compare the two songs of David recorded in 2 Samuel 22 and 23, the one written near the beginning of his life, the other near the end, he will be struck by the great difference of spirit manifested by the writer in each. Read 2 Samuel 22:22-25, and you will not be surprised that God suffered him to have a fall. Then turn to chapter 23, and mark the blessed change. At the beginning of 5:5 there is a heart-broken confession of failure. In verses 10-12, there is a God-glorifying profession, attributing victory unto the Lord. The severe scourging of David was not in vain.
Job. Probably he tasted of every kind of suffering which falls to man’s lot: family bereavements, loss of property, grievous bodily afflictions, came fast, one on top of another. But God’s end in them all was that Job should benefit therefrom and be a greater partaker of His holiness. There was not a little of self-satisfaction and self-righteousness in Job at the beginning; but at the end, when he was brought face to face with the thrice Holy One, he "abhorred himself" (Heb. 42:6). In David’s case the chastisement was retributive; in Job’s corrective.
Abraham. In him we see an illustration of an entirely different aspect of chastening. Most of the trials to which he was subject were neither because of open sins nor for the correction of inward faults. Rather were they sent for the development of spiritual graces. Abraham was sorely tried in various ways, but it was in order that faith might be strengthened, and that patience might have its perfect work in him. Abraham was weaned from the things of this world, that he might enjoy closer fellowship with Jehovah and become "the friend" of God.
Paul. "And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure" (2 Cor. 12:7). This "thorn" was sent not because of failure and sin, but as a preventative against pride. Note the "lest" both at the beginning and end of the verse. The result of this "thorn" was that the beloved apostle was made more conscious of his weakness. Thus chastisement has for one of its main objects the breaking down of self-sufficiency, the bringing us to the end of ourselves.
Now in view of these widely different aspects—chastisements which are retributive, corrective, educative, and preventative—how incompetent are we to diagnose, and how great is the folly of pronouncing a judgment concerning others! Let us not conclude when we see a fellow-Christian under the rod of God that he is necessarily being taken to task for his sins. Let us now consider the spirit in which Divine chastisements are to be received. "My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of Him" (verse 5).
Not all chastisement is sanctified to the recipient of it. Some are hardened thereby; others are crushed beneath it. Much depends on the spirit in which afflictions are received. There is no virtue in trials and troubles in themselves: it is only as they are blest by God that the Christian is profited thereby. As Hebrews 12:11 informs us, it is those who are "exercised" under God’s rod that bring forth "the peaceable fruit of righteousness." A sensitive conscience and a tender heart are the needed adjuncts.
In our text the Christian is warned against two entirely different dangers: despise not, despair not. These are two extremes against which it is ever necessary to keep a sharp look-out. Just as every truth of Scripture has its balancing counterpart, so has every evil its opposite. On the one hand there is a haughty spirit which laughs at the rod, a stubborn will which refuses to be humbled thereby. On the other hand there is a fainting which utterly sinks beneath it and gives way to despondency. Spurgeon said, "The way of righteousness is a difficult pass between two mountains of error, and the great secret of the Christian’s life is to wend his way along the narrow valley." Let us then ponder separately the two things which the Christian is here warned against: "My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou are rebuked of Him."
"The Greek word for ‘despise’ is nowhere used in the Scripture, but in this place. It signifies to ‘set lightly by,’ to have little esteem of, not to value any thing according to its worth and use. The Hebrew word means ‘to reprobate, to reject, to despise.’ We render the apostle’s word by ‘despise,’ which yet doth not intend a despising that is so formally, but only interpretatively. Directly to despise and condemn or reject the chastisements of the Lord is a sin that perhaps none of His sons or children do fall into. But not to esteem of them as we ought, not to improve them unto their proper end, not to comply with the will of God in them, is interpretatively to despise them" (John Owen). As the point now before us is one which is of great practical importance to afflicted Christians, we will describe a number of ways in which God’s chastisement may be "despised."
First, by callousness. There is a general lack of regard unto God’s admonitions and instructions when troubles and sufferings come upon Christians. Too often they view them as the common and inevitable ills which man is heir unto, and perceive not that their Father hath any special hand or design in them. Hence they are stoically accepted in a fatalistic attitude. To be stoical under adversity is the policy of carnal wisdom: make the best of a bad job is the sum of its philosophy. The man of the world knows no better than to grit his teeth and brave things out: having no Divine Comforter, Counselor, or Physician, he has to fall back upon his own poor resources. But it is inexpressibly sad when we find the child of God conducting himself as does a child of the Devil.
This is what is dehorted against in our present text: "despise not thou the chastening of the Lord." Observe well the personal emphasis—"thou:" no matter how thy fellow-creatures act when the clouds of providence frown upon them, see well to it that thou comportest thyself as becometh a son of God. Take to heart the caution here given. Stout-heartedness and stiff-neckedness is to be expected from a rebel, but one who has found grace in the eyes of the Lord should humble himself beneath His mighty hand the moment He gives any intimation of His displeasure. Scorn not the least trials: each has instruction wrapped up in it. Many a child would be spared the rod if he heeded the parent’s frown! So it is spiritually. Instead of hardening ourselves to endure stoically, there should be a melting of heart.
Second, by complaining. This is what the Hebrews did in the wilderness; and there are still many murmurers in Israel’s camp today. A little sickness, and we become so cross that our friends are afraid to come near us. A few days in bed, and we fret and fume like a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke. We peevishly ask, Why this affliction? what have I done to deserve it? We look around with envious eyes, and are discontented because others are carrying a lighter load. Beware, my reader: it goes hard with murmurers. God always chastises twice if we are not humbled by the first. Remind yourself of how much dross there yet is among the gold. View the corruptions of your own heart, and marvel that God has not smitten you far more severely.
This is what is dehorted against here: "despise not thou the chastening of the Lord." Instead of complaining, there should be a holy submitting unto the good will of God. There is a dreadful amount of complaining among Christians today, due to failure to nip this evil weed in the bud. Grumbling at the weather, being cross when things are lost or mislaid, murmuring because some one has failed to show us the respect which we consider ourselves entitled unto. God’s hand in these things—for nothing happens by chance under His government: everything has a meaning and message if our hearts are open to receive it—is lost sight of. That is to "despise" His rod when it is laid but gently upon us, and this it is which necessitates heavier blows. Form the habit of heeding His taps, and you will be less likely to receive His raps.
Third, by criticisms. How often we question the usefulness of chastisement. As Christians we seem to have little more spiritual good sense than we had natural wisdom as children. As boys we thought that the rod was the least necessary thing in the home. It is so with the children of God. When things go as we like them, when some unexpected temporal blessing is bestowed, we have no difficulty in ascribing all to a kind Providence; but when our plans are thwarted, when losses are ours, it is very different. Yet, is it not written, "I form the light and create darkness, I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things" (Isa. 45:7).
How often is the thing formed ready to complain "Why hast Thou made me thus?" We say, I cannot see how this can possibly profit my soul: if I had better health, I could attend the house of prayer more frequently; if I had been spared those losses in business, I would have more money for the Lord’s work! What good can possibly come out of this calamity? Like Jacob we exclaim, "All these things are against me." What is this but to "despise" the rod? Shall thy ignorance challenge God’s wisdom? Shall thy shortsightedness arraign omniscience? O for grace to be as a "weaned child" (Ps. 131:2).
Fourth, by carelessness. So many fail to mend their ways. The exhortation of our text is much needed by all of us. There are many who have "despised" the rod, and in consequence they have not profited thereby. Many a Christian has been corrected by God, but in vain. Sickness, reverses, bereavements have come, but they have not been sanctified by prayerful self-examination. O brethren and sisters, take heed. If God be chastening "consider your ways" (Hag. 1:5), "ponder the path of thy feet" (Prov. 4:26). Be assured that there is some reason for the chastening. Many a Christian would not have been chastised half so severely had he diligently inquired as to the cause of it.
"Cause me to understand wherein I have erred" (Job 6:24); "show me wherefore Thou contendest with me" (Heb. 10:2), expresses the attitude we should take whenever God’s hand is laid upon us. We are bidden "hear ye the rod" (Mic. 6:9), that is, to pay a due regard to God’s voice in our trials and afflictions, and to correct that in our lives with which He is displeased. In chastisement God is to be viewed not only as a Father but also as a Teacher: valuable lessons are to be learned therefrom if we cultivate a teachable spirit. Not so to do, failure to improve them unto their proper design and to comply with the will of God in them, is to "despise" His loving reproofs. But we must turn now to the second half of our verse.
"Nor faint when thou art rebuked of Him." This word presupposes that we have not "despised" God’s chastening, but have heeded it—inquired as to the cause and reason of it, and have discovered He is evidencing that He is displeased with us. The learned tell us that the word for "rebuked," both in the Hebrew and in the Greek, signifies "a reproof by rational conviction:" the conscience has been pricked, and God has discovered unto the heart that there is something in our ways—which before we took no notice of—which has convinced us of the needs-be for our present afflictions. He makes us to understand what it is that is wrong in our lives: we are "rebuked" in our conscience. Our response should be to humble ourselves before Him, confess the fault, and seek grace to right it; and in order to this we are cautioned against "fainting" in our minds. Let us mention several forms of this particular evil of "fainting."
First, when we give up all exertion. This is done when we sink down in despondency. The smitten one concludes that it is more than he can possibly endure. His heart fails him; darkness swallows him up; the sun of hope is eclipsed, and the voice of thanksgiving is silent. To "faint" means rendering ourselves unfit for the discharge of our duties. When a person faints, he is rendered motionless. How many Christians are ready to completely give up the fight when adversity enters their lives. How many are rendered quite inert when trouble comes their way. How many by their attitude say, God’s hand is heavy upon me: I can do nothing. Ah, beloved, "sorrow not, even as others which have no hope" (1 Thess. 4:13). "Faint not when thou art rebuked of Him:" go to the Lord about it; recognize His hand in it. Remember thine afflictions are among the "all things" which work together for good.
Second, when we question our sonship. There are not a few Christians who, when the rod descends upon them, conclude that they are not sons of God after all. They forget that it is written "Many are the afflictions of the righteous (Ps. 34:19), and that we must "through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). One says, "But if I were His child, I should not be in this poverty, misery, shame." Listen to verse 8. "But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards and not sons." Learn, then, to look upon trials as proofs of God’s love—purging, pruning, purifying thee. The father of a family does not concern himself much about those on the outside of his household: it is they who are within whom he guards and guides, nurtures and conforms to his will. So it is with God.
Third, when we give way to unbelief. This is occasioned by our failure to seek God’s support under trials, and lay hold of His promises—"weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning" (Ps. 30:5). Sure are we to "faint" if we lose sight of the Lord, and cherish not His words of consolation. David was encouraging himself against unbelief when he took himself to task and said, "Why art thou cast down O my soul? and why art thou disquieted in me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance" (Ps. 42:5): if only that attitude be maintained by us, we shall be preserved from sinking when troubles come upon us.
Fourth, when we despair. When unbelief dominates the heart, despondency soon becomes our portion. Some indulge the gloomy fancy that they will never again get from under the rod in this life; ah, it is a long lane that has no turning! Perhaps a reader says, "But I have prayed and prayed, and yet the dark clouds have not lifted." Then comfort yourself with the reflection: it is always the darkest hour which precedes the dawn. Perhaps another says, "I have pleaded His promises, but things are no better with me: I thought God delivered those who called upon Him; I have called, but He has not delivered, and I fear He never will." What! child of God, speak of thy Father thus? You say, He will never leave off smiting because He has smitten so long; rather conclude, He has now smitten so long, I must soon be delivered. Fight hard, my brother, against this attitude of despair, lest your complaining cause others to stumble. Despise not; faint not. May Divine Mace preserve both writer and reader from either of these sinful extremes.
N.B. For several of the leading thoughts in the above article, we are indebted to a sermon by the late C.H. Spurgeon.