An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
One reason, perhaps, why so little is written to-day upon Divine chastisement, and why it so rarely forms the theme of the pulpit, is because it suits not the false temper and sentiments of this superficial age. The great majority of the preachers are men-pleasers, and carefully do they trim their sails to the breezes of popular opinion. They are paid to speak "smooth things" and not those which will disturb, to soothe consciences rather than search them. That which is unpalatable, mournful, solemn, dread-inspiring, is sedulously avoided, and attractive, cheerful, and comforting subjects are substituted in their stead. Hence, not only is it now rare for the preacher to dwell upon the eternal punishment of the wicked and bid the unsaved flee from the wrath to come, but Christians hear very little about the Father’s rod, and the groans it occasions, or the fruits it afterwards produces. Fifty years ago a faithful servant of God wrote:
"One of the platitudes of the present day is, that religion is not a gloomy, but a cheerful thing. Although it is easy to see what was meant by him who first opposed this assertion, either to morbid and self-assumed gloom, or to the ignorant representation of the world; yet as it is generally understood, nothing can be less true. Blessed are they that mourn. Woe unto you that laugh. Narrow is the way. If any man will serve Me, let him take up his cross, and follow Me. He that seeketh his life shall lose it. Although the Christian anoints his head and washes his face, he is always fasting; the will has been broken by God, by wounding or bereaving us in our most tender point; the flesh is being constantly crucified. We are not born to be happy either in this world or in our present condition, but the reverse to be unhappy; nay, to try constantly to be dead to self and the world, that the spirit may possess God, and rejoice in Him.
"As there is a false and morbid asceticism, so there is also a false and pernicious tendency to cover a worldly and shallow method of life under the phrase of ‘religion being joyous, and no enemy to cheerfulness.’ To take a very simple and obvious instance. What is meant by a ‘cheerful, pleasant Sunday?’ No doubt men have erred on the side of strictness and legalism; but is a ‘cheerful Sunday’ one in which there is much communion with God in prayer and meditation on God’s Word, much anticipation of the joys of Heaven in praise and fellowship with the brethren? Alas! too many understand by a cheerful Sunday a day in which the spiritual element is reduced to a minimum" (Adolph Saphir).
Alas, that conditions have become so much worse since then. The attractions of the world, and everything which is pleasing to the flesh, have been brought into thousands of "churches" (?) under the plea of being "necessary if the young people are to be held." Even in those places where the bars have not thus been let down, where the grosser forms of worldliness are not yet tolerated, the preaching is generally of such a character that few are likely to be made uneasy by it. He who dwells on the exceeding sinfulness of sin, who insists that God will not tolerate unjudged sin even in His own people, but will surely visit it with heavy stripes, is a "kill joy," a "troubler of Israel," a "Job’s comforter"; and if he persists in enforcing the precepts, admonitions, warnings, and judgments of Holy Writ, is likely to soon find all doors dosed against him. But better this, than be a compromiser; better be deprived of all preaching engagements, than miss the Master’s "Well done" in the Day to come.
"Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless, afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby" (verse 11). In this verse the apostle concludes his discussion of that theme which is now so unwelcome to the majority of professing Christians. Therein he brings to a close all that he had said concerning those disciplinary afflictions which an all-wise God brings upon His people in this life, His gracious design in the same, and the duty incumbent upon them to receive these in a right spirit. He sums up his argument by balancing the good over against the evil, the future over against the present, the judgment of faith over against the feelings of the flesh.
Our present text is added to what has been said in the previous verses for the purpose of anticipating and removing an objection. After all the comforting and encouraging statements made, namely, that chastisements proceed not from enemies but from our Father, that they are sent not in anger but in love, that they are designed not to crush but "for our profit"; carnal sense and natural reason interposes an objection: "But we find no joy under our afflictions, instead much sorrow. We do not feel that they are for our profit; we cannot see how they can be so; therefore we are much inclined to doubt what you have said." The apostle grants the force of the objection: that for the present, chastening does "seem to be grievous and not joyous." But he brings in a double limitation or qualification: in reference to outward sense, it only "seems" so; in reference to time, this is only for "the present." Having made this concession, the apostle turns to the objector and says, "Nevertheless.’’ He reminds him that, first, there is an "afterward" beyond the present moment, to be borne in mind; second, he presses on him the need of being "exercised thereby"; third, he assures him that if he is so exercised "peaceable fruit" will be the happy issue. There are four things told us in the text about chastisement as it is viewed by human reason.
1. All that carnal reason can perceive in our chastenings is But Seeming. All that flesh and blood can discover about the nature and quality of Divine afflictions is but their outward and superficial appearance. The eye of reason is utterly incapable of discovering the virtue and value of sanctified trials. How often we are deceived by mere "seeming"! This is true in the natural sphere: appearances are proverbially deceptive. There are many optical illusions. Have you not noticed some nights when the sun is sinking in the west, that it is much bigger than at its zenith? Yet it is not so in reality; it only "seems" to be so. Have you stood on the deck of a ship in mid-ocean and, while gazing at the horizon, suddenly been startled by the sight of land?—the outline of the coast, with the rising hills in the background, there deafly defined? Yet after all, it was but "seeming"; it was nothing but clouds. In like manner, you have read of a mirage seen by travelers in the desert: away over the sands, they see in the distance green trees and a shining pool of water; but this is only an optical delusion, effected in some way by the atmosphere.
Now if this be so in connection with natural things, the "seeming" not being the actual, the apparent not being the reality, how much more is it true in connection with the things of God! Afflictions are not what they "seem" to be. They appear to work for our ill, and not for our good; so that we are inclined to say, "An enemy hath done this." They seem to be for our injury, rather than our "profit," and we murmur and are cast down. So often fear distorts our vision; so often unbelief brings scales over our eyes, and we exaggerate the dimensions of trials in the dark and dim light. So often we are selfish, fond of our fleshly ease; and therefore spiritual discernment falls to a low ebb. No, chastenings for the present do not seem to be joyous, but "grievous"; but that is because we view them through our natural senses and in the light of carnal reason.
2. Carnal reason judges afflictions in the light of the PRESENT. The tendency with all of us is to estimate things in the light of the now. The ungodly are ever ready to sacrifice their future interests for present gratification. One of their favorite mottos is, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush:" it may be to the slothful, but the enterprising and diligent would rather be put to a little trouble and secure the two. Man is a very shortsighted creature, and even the Christian is often dominated by the same sentiments that regulate the wicked. The light of the now is generally the worst in which to form a true estimate of things. We are too close to them to obtain a right perspective, and see things in their proper proportions. To view an oil painting to the best advantage, we need to step back a few feet from it. The same principle applies to our lives. Proof of this is found as we now look back upon that which is past. Today the Christian discovers a meaning, a needs-be, a preciousness, in many a past experience, and even disappointment, which he could not discern at the time.
The case of Jacob is much to the point, and should guard us against following his foolish example. After Joseph had been removed from his doting father, and when he thought he had lost Simeon too, viewing things in the light of "the present," he petulantly said, "All these things are against me" (Gen. 42:36). Such is often the mournful plaint which issues from our short-sighted unbelief. But later, Jacob discovered his mistake, and found that all those things had been working together for good to himself and his loved ones. Alas, we are so impatient and impetuous, so occupied with the present, that we fail to look forward and by faith anticipate the happy sequel. Then, too, the effects which afflictions have upon the old man, disqualify us to estimate them aright. If my heart is palpitating, if my mind is agitated, and my soul is cast down, then I am in no fit state to judge the quality and blessedness of Divine afflictions. No, chastenings for the present do not "seem to be joyous, but grievous;" that is because we take such a shortsighted view of them and fail to look forward with the eyes of faith and hope.
3. To carnal reason afflictions never seem "joyous." This logically follows from what has been before us under the first two points. Because carnal reason sees only the "seeming" of things, and because it estimates them only in the light of "the present," afflictions are not joyous. Nor does God intend that, in themselves, they should be. If afflictions did "seem" to be joyous, would they be chastisements at all? It would be of little use for an earthly parent to whip his child in such a way as to produce only smiles. Such would be merely a make-belief; no smart, no benefit. Solomon said, "It is the blueness of the wound which maketh the heart better;" so if Divine chastisements are not painful to the flesh and extort a groan and cry, what good end would they serve? If God sent us trials such as we wished, they would not be chastenings at all. No, afflictions do not "seem" to be joyous.
They are not joyous in the form they assume. When the Lord smites, He does so in a tender place, that we may feel the smart of it. They are not joyous in the force of them. Oftentimes we are inclined to say, If the trial had not been quite so severe, or the disappointment had not been so great, I could have endured it. God puts just so much bitter herbs into our cup as to make the draught unpleasant. They are not joyous in the time of them. We always think they come at the wrong season. If it were left to our choosing, they would never come; but if we must have them, we would choose the time when they are the least grievous; and thus miss their blessing. Nor are they joyous in the instruments used: "If it were an enemy, then I could have borne it," said David. That is what we all think. O if my trial were not just that! Poverty I could endure, but not reproach and slander. To have lost my own health would have been a hard blow, but I could have borne it; but the removal of that dear child, the light of my eyes, how can I ever rejoice again? Have you not heard brethren speak thus?
4. To carnal reason afflictions ever seem to be "grievous." Probably the most grievous part to the Christian is that he cannot see how much a loss or trial can possibly benefit him. If he could thus see, he would rejoice. Even here we must walk by faith and not by sight. But this is easier said than done; yea, it can only be done by God’s enabling. Usually, the Christian altogether fails to see why such a trouble is sent upon him; it seems to work harm and not good. Why this financial loss, when he was giving more to the Lord’s work? Why this breakdown in health, when he was being most used in His service? Why this removal of a Sabbath school teacher, just when he was most needed? why was my husband called away, when the children most required him? Yes, such afflictions are indeed grievous to the flesh.
But let it be pointed out that these reasonings are only "seeming." The Christian, by grace, eventually triumphs. Faith looks up at the cloud (though it is often very late in doing so) and says, The chastisement was not as severe as it might have been, certainly it was not as severe as I deserved, and truly it was nothing in comparison to what the Savior suffered for me. O let faith expel carnal reason, and say, "For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory." But note carefully that this is only while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen" (2 Cor. 4:17, 18). For much in the above four points the writer acknowledges his indebtedness to a sermon by C.H. Spurgeon on the same verse.
"Nevertheless, afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby." This is what the apostle sets over against the estimate of carnal reason and the feelings of our natural senses. Medicine may not be a pleasant thing to take, but if it be blest by God, the renewed health it gives is good compensation. The pruned vine at the end of the winter presents a sorry appearance to the eye, but its heavily-laden branches in the autumn vindicate the gardener’s efforts. Did not the "afterward" prove to Jacob that his doleful reasonings were quite unwarranted? Job squirmed under the rod, as well he might, but was not his end more prosperous than his beginning? Thank God for this "Nevertheless afterward."
Yet this "afterward" is also a very searching word: it is one which should pierce and test each of us. Have we not all passed through sorrow? Can any of us look back on the past without recalling seasons of deep and heavy affliction? Has no sword pierced our souls? no painful sacrifice been demanded of us? But, my reader, do these experiences belong to the past in every sense? Have they gone, disappeared, without leaving any effects behind them? No, that is impossible: we are either the better or the worse because of them. Then ask yourself, What fruits have they produced? Have your past experiences hardened, soured, frozen you? Or have they softened, sweetened, mellowed you? Has pride been subdued, self-pleasing been mortified, patience developed? How have afflictions, chastisements, left us? What does the "afterward" reveal?
Not all men are the gainers by afflictions; nor are Christians so always. Many seek to flee from trials and troubles, instead of being "exercised" thereby. Others are callous and do not yield: as Hebrews 12:5 intimates, they "despised" the chastenings of the Lord. There are some who imagine that, when visited with affliction, it is a display of courage if they refuse to be affected. They count it weakness to mourn over losses and weep over sorrows. But such an attitude is altogether un-Christian. Christ wept and again and again we are told that He "groaned." Such an attitude is also foolish to the last degree, for it is calculated to counteract the very design of afflictions, and only calls for severer ones to break our proud spirits. It is no mark of weakness to acknowledge that we feel the strokes of an Almighty arm.
It is the truest wisdom to humble ourselves beneath "the mighty hand of God." If we are among His people, He will mercifully compel us to acknowledge that His chastenings are not to be despised and made light of. He will—and O how easily He can do it—continue or increase our afflictions until He tames our wild spirits, and brings us like obedient children into subjection to Himself. What a warning is found in Isaiah 9:9-11. "And all the people shall know, even Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria, that say in the pride and stoutness of heart, The bricks are fallen down, but we will build with hewn stones; the sycamores are cut down, but we will change them into cedars. Therefore the Lord shall set up the Adversaries of Rezin against him, and join his enemies together." This means that, because the people had hardened themselves under the chastening hand of God, instead of being "exercised" thereby, that He sent sorer afflictions upon them.
The ones benefited by the Father’s chastenings are they who are "exercised thereby." The Greek word for "exercised" was borrowed from the gymnastic games. It had reference to the athlete stripping himself of his outer clothing. Thus, this word in our text is almost parallel with the "laying aside of every weight" in 5:1. If afflictions cause us to be stripped of pride, sloth, selfishness, a revengeful spirit, then "fruit" will be produced. It is only as we improve our chastenings, that we are gainers. The natural effect of affliction on an unsanctified soul is either to irritate or depress, which produces rebellion or sinking in despair. This is the result of hardness of heart and unbelief. Even with regard to the Christian it is true that, only as he views them as proceeding from his Father in order to bring him into subjection, and as he is "exercised thereby," he is truly profited.
1. The conscience needs to be "exercised." There must be a turning unto the Sender of our trials, and a seeking from Him of the meaning and message of them. "There was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David inquired of the Lord" (2 Sam. 21:1)! So should we when the providences of God frown upon us. There must be an honest self-examination, a diligent scrutiny of our ways, to discover what it is God is displeased with. Careful investigation will often show that much of our supposed godly zeal in service is but the result of habit, or the imitating of some eminent saint, instead of proceeding from the heart, and being rendered "unto the Lord."
2. Prayer has to be "exercised" or engaged in. It is true that painful afflictions have a tendency to stifle the voice of supplication, that one who is smarting under the rod feels little inclination to approach the Throne of Grace, but this carnal disposition must be steadily resisted, and the help of the Holy Spirit definitely sought. The heavier our load, the more depressed our heart, the sorer our anguish, the greater our need to pray. God requires to be sought unto for grace to submit to His dealings, for help to improve the same, for Him to sanctify unto our good all that perplexes and distresses us.
3. The grace of meekness must be "exercised," for "a meek and quiet spirit" is of "great price" in the sight of Him with whom we have to do (1 Pet. 3:4). Meekness is the opposite of self-will and hardness of heart. It is a pliability of soul, which is ready to be fashioned after the Divine image. It is a holy submission, willing to be molded as the Heavenly Potter determines. There can be no "peaceable fruit of righteousness" until our wills are broken, and we have no mind of our own. How much we need to heed that word of Christ’s, "Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me, for I am meek" (Matthew 11:29).
4. Patience must be "exercised." Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him" (Ps. 37:7): "wait" for His time of deliverance, for if we attempt to deliver ourselves, we are very likely to plunge into deeper trials. Fruit is not ripened in a day; nor do the benefits of chastisements appear immediately. Patience must have her perfect work if the soul is to be enriched by afflictions. In the interval of waiting, allow nothing to deter your plodding perseveringly along the path of duty.
5. Faith must be "exercised." God’s hand must be seen in every trial and affliction if it is to be borne with meekness and patience. While we look no further than the malice of Satan, or the jealousy, enmity, injustice of men, the heart will be fretful and rebellious. But if we receive the cup from the Father’s hand, our passions will be calmed and the inward tumult stilled. Only by the exercise of faith will the soul be brought into a disposition to quietly submit, and digest the lessons we are intended to learn.
6. Hope must be "exercised." As faith looks upward and sees God’s hand in the trial, hope is to look forward and anticipate the gains thereof. Hope is a confident expectation of future good. It is the opposite of despair. Hope lays hold of the promised "Afterward," and thus it sustains and cheers in the present. Hope assures the cast-down soul "I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance" (Ps. 42:5). "But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you" (1 Pet. 5:10).
7. Love must be "exercised." It is the Father’s love which chastens us (verse 5); then ought not we to love Him in return for His care and patient training of us? Instead of doubting His wisdom or questioning His goodness, there should be an affectionate gratitude flowing out to the One who is seeking naught but our welfare. "We can never find any benefit in chastenings, unless we are exercised by them, that is, unless all our graces are stirred up by them to a holy, constant exercise" (John Owen)—how different that, from the fatalistic inertia of many hyper-Calvinists!
What we have sought to bring out above is the fact that spiritual "fruit" is not the natural or spontaneous effect of affliction. Nay, have we not observed that few of those who suffer severe financial reverses, heavy domestic bereavements, or personal bodily pain, are, spiritually, the gainers thereby. Yea, do we need to look any further than ourselves, to perceive how little we have learned by and profited from past trials? And the cause is plain: we were not duly exercised thereby. May this word abide with each of us for the future.
What is meant by "the peaceable fruit of righteousness"? If we took this expression by itself, it would signify the effects of righteousness, the fruit which righteousness itself brings forth. But in our text it is chastenings or afflictions which are specifically mentioned as producing this fruit. It is the Spirit tranquilizing and purifying the heart. "Righteousness" in our text is parallel with "His holiness" in verse 10. It may be summed up in the mortification of sin and the vivification of vital godliness. It is called the "peaceable fruit" because it issues in the taming of our wild spirits, the quieting of our restless hearts, the more firm anchoring of our souls. But this only comes when we truly realize that it is the Father’s love which has afflicted us. May the Spirit of God grant us all "exercised" hearts, so that we shall daily search ourselves, examine our ways, and be stripped of all that is displeasing to Him.