For the word of God is quick and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit and of the joints and marrow and is a discemer of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Hebrews 4.12
THE GREAT CRITIC
Sermon Chatsworth Road Chapel,
Archibald G. Brown.
West Norwood, London.
March 24, 1907.
“For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discemer of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” Hebrews 4.12.
Last Thursday in one of our Law Courts there occurred an incident which I propose using as an introductory illustration. A counsel was asking questions of a witness, and amongst others came this, “Was the wife’s Bible on the dressing-table?” and either on account of the way in which the question was asked, or the way in which the answer was given, there were sounds of laughter in the Court. Then in sternest language Judge Bucknill interposed, and uttered these memorable words: “It is bad form to raise a laugh about that Holy Book.” I do not wonder that in the Friday morning issue of the daily papers there appeared in large typeÂ—”A JUDGE’S STERN REBUKE.” They are words that deserve to be printed in big type and to be well remembered. “It is bad form to raise a laugh about that Holy Book”; and then he added “if there is more laughter I shall order the Court to be cleared.” We say, “well spoken, Mr. Justice Bucknill; all honour to you.” But we cannot help thinking that a Mr. Justice Bucknill is needed in some of our sanctuaries, and that there is decidedly more need for his sharp and bold and straight reproof in them than where it was delivered.
There is something worse than raising a laugh about the BibleÂ—and I thank God there is an English Judge who does not mind speaking of it as ‘this holy book’Â—there is something, I say, infinitely worse than raising a laugh about it; and that is, if I undermine it, if I repudiate it, if I explain it away, if I describe it as a bundle of myths, if I so speak of it as to wreck the faith of young and simple-hearted people. I would to God that in many of our sanctuaries there were a Judge Bucknill at hand who would have the moral courage to say, not to a Counsel at law but to a professed minister of the Gospel, “It is bad form to speak ill of that Holy Book.” It is impossible to shut one’s eyes to the fact that at the present time apostasy is in the air. Go where you will you cannot escape from itÂ—an atmosphere of scepticism and Pantheism is eating like a cancer into the minds of many. The old dramatic story of the thirty-sixth chapter of Jeremiah is being enacted over again. Do you remember it? Jeremiah had
received a message from the Lord, and he had written it out on his parchments, and Jehudi is called upon to read it before the king Jehoiakim, who is sitting in his winter palace, with a fire burning before him; and after Jehudi had read two or three of the pages, we read that the king took out his penknife, ripped the parchments and cast them into the fire and burned them, and the next verse says, “Yet they were not afraid, neither did any rend their garments.” Jehoiakim is not dead; the spirit that was in him is to be found today, and the same holy Scriptures are being cut up, rent, torn into pieces and cast on one side, and we need to hear the voice of the Judge saying, “It is bad form to speak ill of that Holy Book.”
Now if you look at the context of our subject you will see that the reference is to the danger of trifling with the word of God, whether that word be a threat or a promise. All through the chapter the writer has been dwelling on this; and then as an argument he says (from the eleventh verse): “Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief”Â— that was unbelief in God’s wordÂ—”For the word of God is quick”Â— you are to take that word in the old prayer book sense; it is alive, it is the contrast to death, the word of the Lord is livingÂ—”and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword,”Â—and if it has an edge like a sword it has a point like a rapierÂ—”piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”
The argument of our passage, you will see, is this: the self-evidencing power of the Bible. There are external evidences that the word of God is true, and there are also internal evidences, and that which the writer is dealing with here is the evidence to be found in its effect on him who reads itÂ—that this book will become a living power; it will search him through and through; it will pierce deep down even to the dividing of soul and spirit, and then it will become a discernerÂ—and I think when we come to the meaning of that word it will throw an immense light on the passageÂ—it will become a discerner even of my thoughts, and, deeper still, my intents; it not only searches me through and through and makes me read my own thoughts, but it makes me gaze on the motives I would attempt to veil from my own eyes. When the great Coleridge was speaking on the inspiration of Scripture he remarked that he thought the greatest internal evidence of inspiration was the effect that the book had upon his own experience, and he uttered this idiomatic phrase, which I would like you to remember, “I know it is the word of God for it finds meÂ—it finds me.” And good old Matthew Henry says, “The Bible is that book which will take a man’s heart and turn it inside out before his own eyes and make him see what lies within.” It is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
What is the meaning of this word discern? I think I am correct in saying it only occurs here in the whole of the New Testament. It is the word from which we get our English word critic; and literally translated it is, “And is critical of our thoughts and intents.”
Our subject is, THE GREAT CRITIC. Now biblical criticism is generally supposed to be our criticism of the Bible. Biblical criticism is man’s criticism of the Bible. Now when I come to this text it is vice versa; the old order is changed; biblical criticism is not my criticism of the Bible, it is the Bible’s criticism of myself; and there is a vast difference between the two. I should be sorry for any to think that I have a word to say against biblical research. This is a holy biblical criticism in the ordinary acceptation of the word that is invaluable, namely, when any profound Hebrew or Greek scholar carefully scrutinizes the most ancient manuscripts that can be obtained in order to get if possible the actual word used by the Holy Ghost. You cannot have too much of that, and the Church of God owes a debt she never can repay to those reverend men who have thus searched the Scriptures. That is biblical research, and it is altogether different from destructive criticism, when man sets himself up as judge, and, if anything in the Bible does not correspond with what he thinks ought to be there, uses the penknife of Jehoiakim.
But my text speaks of this book criticising me. Let us look into this for a few moments. I gather then that the spirit in which I ought to read the Bible is one of holy reverence. I am to come to it in the spirit that Judge Bucknill advocated in the Law Courts last week; I am to view it at all events as a Holy Book, and anything like flippancy or irreverence is out of court, and in the Judge’s words is bad form, bad in a moral sense. But you will find that the very moment you begin to treat the Word as God claims it should be treated there will be a revelation made to you. The moment you begin reverently to read the Word as your criticÂ—not yourself as its criticÂ—you will discover your own portrait, you will behold yourself delineated. Ah! such a portrait. We sometimes hear the expression, “a speaking portrait.” If you want a speaking portrait read God’s word concerning yourself, and by and by you will come to the conclusion that it is more than a portraitÂ—it is a photograph; it is even more than thatÂ—it is instinct with life, and you see your whole self absolutely delineated there, and at last you will have to confess that the Author of the Bible knows more about you than you ever knew about yourself, and maybe you will come to the conclusion that He knows more about you than you wish He did, and that He makes you learn that about yourself of which you would rather remain ignorant. Suppose you take the Scriptures and begin to read them reverently, you will find, I believe, that every expression used in this remarkable text becomes an experience. It is quickÂ—that is, it is alive; you cannot put it on a level with any other book. I think I may say that I am second to none here in love of books. I am never happier than when alone in the study, with my volumes. But there is this difference: other books may have a measure of power about them, but this book has an indescribable vitalityÂ—it lives. It is a book and yet it is more, far more than a book; it is like those creatures Ezekiel saw in his visionÂ—instinct with life. There has been a very great discussion for ages as to whether this twelfth verse refers to the word of God in the book or the Word of God incarnate,
and you have such men as Dr. Owen on the one side, and John Calvin on the other; and do you see what that teaches? It teaches that Jesus Christ and His Book are so intimately linked that they become practically one.
So we read that the word of God is “living,” and then when you come to the thirteenth verse it is not its but HisÂ—”Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in His sight.” Jesus Christ and His word are inseparably linked, and yet to-day there are those who profess to admire Christ, and they speak beautifully of Him, while they blasphemously make light of His precious word. It cannot logically be done; the two are inseparable; Christ and His book are wedded, and as you treat the one, so do you treat the other, and your treatment of His word He will take as your treatment of Him. You will find that it is alive. Oh, it talks to me; it communes with me; it smites me often; sometimes it kisses me; it rebukes me. You will often find when you have your Bible before you, and you are just reading it in order to hear God’s criticism, that in a hundred different ways it will make you feel that it is aliveÂ—God’s life is in it from beginning to end; it is living, powerful, sharpÂ—and then comes that wonderful wordÂ—piercing, going right down beneath the surface. What superficial people most of us are! There are none of us here but what have far too much of mere conventionality. But when we get alone with God’s book, how that seems to laugh at our surface work and our pretty delusions. It pierces and goes right down until it reaches the soul and the marrow. It gets right into me;
and then, not content with that, it proceeds to lay open before my eyes my thoughts, my intentions, and it criticises them. Have you ever known what it is to sit humbly before God’s book and let it be your critic? If we were to say nothing more, and this morning’s service were to result in nothing else than your doing that, our gathering together would not be in vain. Its self-evidencing power is marvellous, and you will find it so in your experience. You begin, maybe, to read what it says about corrupt human nature, and as you read about your nature being thoroughly evil and at enmity against God, there will be something in your soul that will say, “Why, that is myself; it is describing me.” When a missionary years ago in China, read the first chapter of the Romans through in publicÂ—one of the Chinese came forward (he was a heathen) and said, “I think it is unfair of you foreign devil to come and watch and see all our secret ways, and then go and write them in a book and read them out in public.” The man thought that the only explanation was that this foreign devil, as he termed him, must have been spying into their secret life of sin. Let any one of us read the Word as God intended it to be read, and we shall have to say with Coleridge, “It finds me.” ButÂ—and can I carry you with me? It is when the Bible particularises that I find it is such an awful critic; when it does not simply deal with my corruption as a whole but begins to enter into detail. How often have I shrunk, shivered, shuddered, as this Word, this critic, has shown me my own miserable subterfuges to escape the lashes of conscience. How this Word shows to us the lying
fancies that we will conjure up in order to cheat ourselves, and then this Book comes and shows us the sinfulness of secret desire as well as open act. I would sooner stand before the keenest cross-examiner that the Law Courts can produce than stand before this Word and have it cross-examine me. Why, it turns one inside out. You may be prating about your morality, and how you have never done this and that. and the Book quietly says, “You have never done it, but have you ever thought it?” and then it passes sentenceÂ—”As a man thinketh in his heart so is he.” You have only to let this Book cross-examine you, and you will soon cry out “It finds me, it finds me.” It is the critic of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
How does this Word become the critic? By presenting a mirror to us, so that in the mirror we see ourselves. You get that in the first chapter of James, twenty-third verse: “For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a mirror: for he beholdeth himself.” It is not “he beholdeth what he thinks himself to be;” it is not “he beholdeth what he would like to be:” “he beholdeth himself.” When a polished mirror is held before me, and I look into it, that mirror will not suppress anything;
if there are scars or blotches on the face it will reflect them as much as every square inch of my skin that is clean. You cannot get a mirror to enter into complicity with you to suppress that which you do not want to see, and so the Holy Ghost says, “he beholdeth himself.” I may be a self-righteous man, a vain man, a jealous man, an envious man, and perhaps be almost unconscious of it. I believe that many of us are so: we do not know how selfish we are; we do not know how jealous we are; we do not know how impure we are in our thoughts. We are living in a fool’s paradise, and then this book comes, and at once it is a mirror, and I look into it. What do I see? I behold myself; and that is the last thing any man wants to see. I am not here speaking theoretically: I am speaking that which I have learned with many a heart-ache, many a burning blush, and many a hot tear, and if you have not also learned it, I venture to say, it is because you have not sat down and allowed this book to be your critic. If you doubt it, try this afternoon, and if you spend the time listening to what the book says about yourself, and gazing in that mirror and seeing yourself, you will come up to chapel this evening a far humbler man than you are now, far more dissatisfiedÂ—no! dissatisfied is not the wordÂ—a man who sees himself as depicted in this mirror will loathe himself.
Again, as a critic this word throws light upon me. I think that is the great work of the critic. I speak, I am aware, in the presence of those who know far better about this than myself, but is there any large publishing firm that has not on its staff some trained reviewers? When a book is sent for review, there is a man ready with the naturally critical turn of mind. He is appointed to read it, and he can see far more, maybe, of its depth, its trend and its purpose than the general public, and so he writes a review. There is tremendous power in the hands of our reviewers. Many a review can either damn or make a book. Now when I have this book before me as my critic, I
am not surprised if, as a critic, it throws light upon me; and in the one hundred and nineteenth Psalm at the one hundred and thirtieth verse you read, “The entrance of Thy word giveth light.” It is the entrance of it. The sun may be shining brightly in the heavens, but if you have the shutters of your house closed, your rooms will be none the better for that shining; all obstacles must be removed and the sun must be free to shine in anywhere. “The entrance of Thy word giveth light.” Some of you have had the shutters up for a good many years, and the light of the book keeps striking against these shutters, but it has never lit you up. But the entrance of God’s wordÂ—oh! it giveth light! I can see the dark things, the creeping things, the foul things that have been living in that closed room for years. Ah! the light will make you shudder. That is the very thought that Peter has in his second Epistle, first chapter, nineteenth verse: “We have a more sure word of prophecy,” and then the literal translation of the Greek is thisÂ—”as a light that shineth in a squalid place.”
There is a squalid place, but so long as there is no particular light you do not see its squalor. In years past I have been into places which, thank God, you know nothing at all about. I have climbed up staircases on which no ray of light ever shone; and if only there had been light maybe I should have been almost sick to death as I ascended the stairs. The darkness hid the foulness, but when the light shines in a squalid place, oh! how squalid it does appear. And when God’s light comes as the discerner in our hearts, how it shows them up, does it not? What a squalid place my heart is! Suppose you were to stand before the word of God this afternoon, and that word as the critic says to you, “Thief!” You start back indignantly and say, “Thief! I have never robbed anyone of a penny.” The critic replies, “You forget: he that covets what belongs to another, is a thief.” And maybe the same voice would say to another, “Adulterer!” And, horror-stricken, you shrink back and say, “There has never been any immorality in my life.” But the critic says, “You forget; he that looks and desires has committed the sin.” Or does the critic say, “Murderer!” You look at your white hands and you say, “Murderer! I have never had my hands stained with blood,” and the critic replies, “He that hateth his brother is a murderer.”
You cannot stand before this critic. That is the reason why men hate this book so. Here is the reason why it is so attacked. It must be explained away; it is too severe in its criticism. It blasts our self-complacency. And yet is it not a good thing to have all the nonsense and insane delusions criticised out of us? It is a grand thing to be made sick of oneself, and to be compelled to say with Job, “I abhor myself.” And then I will tell you what this critic will say to usÂ—for it is not a carping critic, but a kindly oneÂ—it will say to us: “All your productions are worthless; they are all bad; you can never be saved by your own works; you are a sinful guilty man. But this is what you need, you need a salvation that is all of grace, a salvation based on an atoning sacrifice: Trust in Jesus.”
May God make this book the discemer, the critic of our thoughts
and hearts, and from this day forth may we be far more concerned to know the Bible’s criticism of ourselves than man’s criticism of the Bible.