The Sermon On The Mount
"Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?"
Matthew 6:26, 27
"Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life" (v. 25). In the last chapter we pointed out that Christ was not here forbidding a diligent use of all lawful means in our earthly calling, nor a judicious laying by against a future rainy day; rather is He prohibiting that worrying about the future which evidences a distrust of Divine providence and a doubting of our Father's goodness. Yet so senseless are we, so filled with unbelief, so slow to obey this precept, that our Lord not only repeated the same in verse 31 but condescends to reason with us and enforce His injunction by a great variety of cogent arguments. This at once intimates to us the deep importance which He attaches to a heart that is free from distrustful anxiety and distracting fear, and also makes unmistakably evident the exceeding sinfulness of such sins. Let us then seek grace to attend closely unto our Lord's reasoning in this connection and treasure up in our hearts His different arguments.
"Take no [anxious] thought for your life." As Matthew Henry tersely summarizes it: "(1) Not about the continuance of it: refer it to God, to lengthen or shorten as He please. (2) Not about the comforts of it: refer it to God, to embitter or sweeten as He pleases." Our times are in His hands. The One who communicated life to our bodies has unalterably decreed the exact length of our earthly existence: "Thou hast appointed his bounds that he cannot pass" (Job 14:5), so that all our fretting and fuming is needless and useless, for neither planning nor worrying can prolong our natural life a single hour. And so long as we faithfully perform our duty and trust in God we need not be the slightest bit concerned as to how He is going to provide for us. The Lord is not tied to ways and means, and when one source of supplies fails us He will open another-as He did for Elijah.
"Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?" (v. 25). Here is the first of seven reasons or arguments used by Christ on this occasion to show us how foolish, how needless, how useless, how sinful, are anxious thoughts and distracting fears over the supply of our temporal needs. It is an inference drawn from the greater to the less: an argument frequently made use of in Scripture, but one, alas, that we easily forget-see the "much more" of Romans 5:9, 10, 15. It is an argument based upon the infinite goodness and unchanging faithfulness of our Creator: God Himself has given us life and a body, and He does not stop half-way in His bestowments: when He implants life, He also grants all that is needful for its sustenance. When God gives, He gives royally and liberally, honestly and sincerely, logically and completely. Therefore we may rest assured that when He bestows life itself, He is not going to stultify His own gift by withholding anything that is needful for our good and blessing.
"Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them, Are ye not much better than they?" (v. 26). These words contain Christ's second reason to dissuade us from distrustful care about things needful. It is taken from the consideration of God's providing for creatures inferior to us, His supplying needful things for them. It was as though the Redeemer said, Do you want further assurance that God will provide for all your temporal needs? Then lift up your eyes to the air and mark its feathered inhabitants as they flit to and fro, free from anxiety, filling the atmosphere with their cheerful songs. Oh, how they should show us, who are so often distrustful and despondent, how much more cause have we to celebrate the goodness of our gracious God and show forth His praises. Yet it is much to be feared that He receives less acknowledgment from us, fewer expressions of gratitude, than He does from those creatures upon whom He has bestowed the feeblest endowment.
"Behold the fowls of the air:" that is, take a serious view of, thoughtfully contemplate them. From this we learn that it is our duty duly to consider the works of God, laboring to behold His wisdom, goodness, power, mercy and providence therein. This is the lesson inculcated by Solomon: "Consider the work of God" (Eccl. 7:13), and by Eliphaz, "Remember that thou magnify His work, which men behold" (Job 36:24). God has revealed Himself through His works as truly as He has through His Word, and we are greatly the losers if we fail to examine carefully and ponder prayerfully the wonders of creation, wherein the Divine perfections are so blessedly displayed. "O Lord, how manifold are Thy works! in wisdom hast Thou made them all: the earth is full of Thy riches" (Ps. 104:24). "The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein . . . He hath made His wonderful works to be remembered" (Ps. 111:2. 4). "Marvellous are Thy works, and that my soul knoweth right well" (Ps. 139:14).
Why was it that the Lord God took six days to make one creature after another, then took a particular view of them all after their creation, beholding with pleasure the products of His hands (Gen. 1:31), and then sanctified the seventh day for a holy rest? Was it not, among other reasons, to teach us by His own example to consider distinctly all the works of His hands, and that among other duties we should meditate on the Lord's day upon the wondrous and glorious works of our Creator? This was David's practice, as we learn from his Sabbath Psalm: "For Thou, Lord, hast made me glad through Thy work: I will triumph in the works of Thy hands. O Lord, how great are Thy works! and Thy thoughts are very deep" (92:4, 5). Oh, to be able to say with him, "I meditate on all Thy works: I muse on the work of Thy hands" (Ps. 143:5). How otherwise can we intelligently discharge the duty laid upon us in "One generation shall praise Thy works to another, and shall declare Thy mighty acts. I will speak of the glorious honour of Thy majesty, and of Thy wondrous works" (Ps. 145:4, 5).
"Behold the fowls of the air." And what is it we are specially to learn and take to heart in connection with them? Why, this: "They sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them." They use not the means of provision which man does, and therefore have not that care and anxiety which he has. They are not required to perform those labors which are demanded of us, nor commanded to eat in the sweat of their face; nevertheless, they do not starve to death. Here is a marvelous fact which few ponder. The manner in which the lower animals, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, are provided with their food and clothing supplies a most convincing and unbelief-rebuking demonstration of the superintendence of God over this world, displaying as it does in so many ways His manifold wisdom, His wondrous providence, His infinite goodness. His unfailing faithfulness, His tender care, His compassions which are "new every morning."
If the question be asked, Since the fowls of the air sow not, neither reap nor gather into barns, how then are they provided for? the answer is that they expect their food from God's own hand. "Who provideth for the raven his food, when his young ones cry unto God" (Job 38:41). "So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts . . . these wait all upon Thee, that Thou mayest give them their meat in due season" (Ps. 104:25, 27). "The eyes of all wait upon thee, and Thou givest them their meat in due season" (Ps. 145:15). "He giveth to the beast his food, and to the young ravens which cry" (Ps. 147:9). But how can irrational creatures be said to cry unto God? They do not use prayer as men do, yet are they said to "wait on God," because by a natural instinct in creation they seek for that food which God has ordained for them and are content therewith. By such phrases as "they cry to God" He would teach us that they depend upon His providence wholly for provision and rest satisfied therewith.
Here we may see how the irrational creatures, made subject to vanity by the sin of man, come nearer to their first estate and better observe the order of nature in their creation than man does, for they seek only for that which God has provided for them, and when they receive it are content; whereas man is deeply fallen from the estate of his creation in regard to his dependency on God's providence for temporal things. Though he be endowed with reason, and has the use of means which the fowls of heaven lack, yet his heart is filled with distrustful care, whether we respect the obtaining of or the use which he makes of earthly things. This solemnly demonstrates that man is more corrupt than other creatures, more vile and base than are the brute beasts. How deeply this ought to humble every one of us under a serious consideration of our sinfulness, that we have so debased our nature that we are more rebellious to the laws of our being and more distrustful of the Divine providence than are irrational creatures!
"Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them." How the consideration of this truth ought to take us off from our useless and senseless worrying. The feathered creatures of the air use not means, yet are they fed. Man is required to use means, for God has ordained them for his provision: if, then, we dutifully employ them, in obedience to and trust in God, will He suffer us to want? Birds are incapable of providing for themselves, unable to lay up a store of food against the winter's snow and cold, yet their needs are supplied. We are granted foresight and the means of providing for a rainy day: if we are faithful therein, will God mock our industry? Surely not: then how unnecessary, how dishonoring to God, how sinful, are our carking care, our distrustfulness, our fretting and worrying!
"Yet your heavenly Father feedeth them." Herein we may observe God's special and particular providence. The dictates of reason would lead us to conclude that those creatures which are incapable of making provision for themselves and laying up store in summertime against the winter would starve when the earth yields not such means of nourishment during the cold weather and when the ground is covered with snow; yet they do not commonly do so. Yea, experience shows that birds are for the most part fatter and fitter for human consumption in the winter than they are in the summer! What a striking and blessed manifestation of God's special providence is this: that He attends to and meets the need of His feathered creatures and feeds them in the dead of winter! Oh, how this should shame us for doubting His providence, how it rebukes our wicked distrust of His care, how it exposes the groundlessness and wickedness of our unbelief! Next time you are tempted to worry over future supplies, dear reader, and rack your poor brains over where they are going to come from, think of the birds of the air and remember that a faithful Creator feeds them even in the winter.
"Your heavenly Father feedeth them." Has He not here set before us an example which we do well to follow? "Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children" (Eph. 5:1). If God is so merciful unto the fowls of heaven as to feed them, then must not those who are His children evidence their likeness to the Father by exercising mercy unto all His creatures? True, He is not dependent upon our aid, yet is He often pleased to make use of means: then next time the ground is covered with snow, fail not to place some crusts of bread or lumps of suet in your garden or back-yard, and when the ponds are frozen over put a cup of hot water within the reach of your feathered friends. And let not your kindness be limited unto the birds, but extend it also unto the animals, the poor among men, and especially unto any indigent members of the Household of Faith. In time of stress and scarcity, refrain from profiteering and grinding the face of the poor.
"Are ye not much better than they?" (v. 26). Here is the application which Christ makes of His second argument. Considered simply as members of the human race we are creatures of a nobler order than the fowls of the air, for we are endowed with rationality and designed for an eternal destiny. If then God feeds the birds of the air, will He fail to provide for those who are created in His own image? But considered as sons and daughters of the Almighty, the objects of His special love, of redeeming grace, of the quickening operations of the Holy Spirit, as begotten unto an inheritance "incorruptible and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for us," think you that the heavenly Father will suffer any of them to starve to death while they pass through this wilderness of sin? If He provides for the birds in the dead of winter, is He unable or unwilling to minister to your temporal needs in sickness or old age? How small is our faith in His goodness, His faithfulness, His tender care, if we worry now about where our future bread or clothing is to come from!
"Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?" (v. 27). Here is the third reason advanced by Christ against carking care for worldly things. It is propounded in the way of a question, which form of speech imports the affirming of or denying of the thing spoken of with more vehemence. Here it has the force of an emphatic negative: as though Christ had said, Certainly none of you by taking care can add a single cubit to his height. This unanswerable argument is taken from man's impotency: neither the most ambitious, the strongest, nor the wisest is able to do so. We did not reach our present weight or height by any efforts of our own, but solely by the providence of God. "An infant of a span long has grown up to be a man of six feet, and how was one cubit after another added to his stature? Not by his own foresight or contrivance: he grew he knew not how, by the power and goodness of God" (Matthew Henry).
A "cubit" varies from eighteen to twenty-one inches, being the measure taken from the length of a man's arm from the elbow to the tip of his middle finger. Now in the framing of a man's body, God brings it from a span long in the mother's womb by gradual increase, adding to it cubit after cubit until he has reached the height God ordained. The exact height each man comes to, God has appointed, and no man, either by his skill, his anxiety, or his industry, can exceed the stature God has determined him. That is the work of the Creator: He who gives the body decrees the stature, and by His providence brings it thereto by daily increase. Hence, reasons Christ, since man cannot by the most diligent use of means augment his stature one cubit, neither can he by all his fretting and fuming, moiling and toiling, better his temporal estate for things needful in this life, and therefore it is needless and useless to vex our hearts therewith.
"We cannot alter the stature we are of, if we would: what a foolish and ridiculous thing it would be for a man of low stature to perplex himself, to break his sleep and beat his brains about it, and to be continually taking thought how he might be a cubit higher; when, after all, he knows he cannot effect it, and therefore he had better be content and take it is as it is. . . . Now as we do in reference to our bodily estate. (1) We should not covet an abundance of the wealth of this world. (2) We must reconcile ourselves to our state, as we do to our stature: we must set the conveniences against the inconveniences, and so make a virtue of necessity-what cannot be remedied must be made the best of. We cannot alter the disposals of providence, and therefore must acquiesce in them and accommodate ourselves to them" (Matthew Henry).
Certain it is that man's labour, care and industry are utterly vain and fruitless without the blessing of God's providence. "Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it; except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows" (Ps. 127:1, 2). "I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth" (1 Cor. 3:6, 7): if two such men as these could do nothing of themselves, what shall we think to do? This same truth-so much lost sight of today-is brought out again in "Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink; ye clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes. . . Ye looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when ye brought it home, I did blow upon it" (Hag. 1:6, 9). How this should teach us to commend all the sober care and labour of our lawful callings to God by prayer for His blessing, and when He has granted the same fail not to return thanks unto Him.
No man can better his natural estate in this world either for wealth or dignity, by all his care and labour, above that which God has appointed him to reach unto. As the Creator has determined each man's bodily stature which we cannot add to, so He has foreordained what each man's estate shall be, whether of wealth or poverty, dignity or disgrace, and it lies not in the power of any creature to alter the same. "Lift not up your horn on high: speak not with a stiff neck. For promotion cometh neither from the east nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the Judge: He putteth down one, and setteth up another" (Ps. 75:5-7). "The Lord maketh poor, and maketh rich: He bringeth low, and lifteth up" (1 Sam. 2:7)-true alike naturally and spiritually. The grand lessons to be drawn from all of this are that we must learn to depend upon God in the sober use of lawful means, humbly seek His blessing thereon, and rest content therewith, whether it be more or less, accepting with gratitude and thanksgiving the portion He has been pleased to allot us. We are completely dependent upon God for our stature, so why not leave all things to Him!