Chapter 2 - The River of God
PREACHED AT ZOAR CHAPEL, GREAT ALIE STREET, LONDON, ON THURSDAY EVENING, APRIL 24, 1845.
I shall first take notice of the Church of God under the metaphor or title of a "city". In the second place I shall speak of the "river" by which this city is made glad. In the third place I shall enumerate some of the "streams" that are connected with this river.
1. The first branch of the subject is that the church of God is compared to "a city. " Now cities, or at least some of them, are built on an eminence or conspicuous place; and hence they are typical of the Lord's church, which is said to be "a city that is set on a hill," and which "cannot be hid."
Cities generally were walled around, and they had their walls and bulwarks for their safety and defence. So the church of God says, "In that day shall this song be sung in the land of Judah; We have a strong city; salvation will God appoint for walls and bulwarks."
On the walls of these cities there were anciently, and still remain in some places to this day, towers, and in these towers watchmen were placed, both to give an alarm in time of danger, and to fight on the approach of the enemy. So in Zion, the city of the living God, the city of the great King, He has His watchtowers and watchmen; and these watchmen are His ministering servants, who are continually on Zion's walls. The Lord says, "I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, which shall never hold their peace day nor night; ye that make mention of the LORD. keep not silence... till he make Jerusalem a praise in the earth."
We read also in the sacred scriptures, that these watchmen, the Lord's ministering servants, are not merely to stand upon the walls, but they are also to go about the streets and highways of the city to seek the Lord's people. Hence the church says, in the Song of Solomon, when she was seeking her Beloved who had withdrawn himself from her, "The watchmen that go about the city found me." God's ministers go about the city of Zion, and into the abodes of the brethren, to see how they were, and to enquire after their soul's welfare; as Paul and Barnabas did, when they said, "Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do." Thus God's ministers enter into the different stages of the experience of the citizens as in so many of the various streets in Zion, in order to meet their cases, and describe their feelings, by pointing out who they are, and where they are.
Again, cities have their chief and principal men. So, in reference to Zion, "the city of the living God," it is called "the city of the great King," King Jesus. "I have set my king upon my holy hill of Zion," the church of God. Jesus Christ is King in Zion; and the church is His city. His habitation, and His dwelling-place. He says, "This is my rest for ever; here will I dwell; for I have desired it." The inhabitants of this city of Zion are heaven-born and Spirit-taught souls, for they are all born in the city. But in reference to citizens literally, they are not all free-born, for some have to purchase their freedom. In the case of Paul when they were about scourging him, he being a Roman and uncondemned, the chief captain said to him, "With a great sum obtained I this freedom. And Paul said, But I was free-born." So the inhabitants of spiritual Zion, the people of God, are all free born citizens. When the Lord makes up the number of His people, it shall be said, "this and that man was born in her." Jerusalem is said to "travail in birth," and "to bring forth;" and she is said also to be "the mother of us all."
In Jerusalem God clothes His word with almighty power and sinners are converted; here they are born again of the Spirit and brought into newness of life; and, as Peter says, are "begotten again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." So that all real spiritual citizens of Zion, are heaven-born and Spirit-taught souls, and constitute the church and "city of the living God."
Time would fail me were I to attempt to point out the marks and evidences of these spiritual citizens and heaven-born souls. We find the King of the city says, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God;" and "Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." Every true citizen, therefore, must be a converted character and will be brought to feel himself as a little child. But in what sense of the word does the true citizen of Zion become as a little child? I would direct your attention to the new-born babe, described by the prophet Ezekiel, who was cast out into the open field in a state of destitution and wretchedness. That was a little child in very indigent and pitiable circumstances, emblematical of a heaven born soul. How weak, how helpless that child was! - but yet no more weak or helpless than the heaven-born soul is made to see and feel himself to be. That little child could do nothing at all for itself: it could not wash, feed, dress, nor clothe itself; neither could it protect or defend itself; it must have everything done for it. So heaven-born souls, regenerate by the Holy Spirit, feel that they can do nothing for themselves, but add sin to sin; they must have everything done for them. And blessed be the name of the King, He has done it all. As the Captain of our salvation, He has finished redemption's work. There is everything in the Monarch of this city that its citizens stand in need of. Glorious things are spoken of the city, and of the King of the city, and of the treasures and supplies that He has laid up to meet the wants and necessities of the citizens. It is out of His fullness that they are said to receive, "and grace for grace." Under the same metaphor of a babe, Peter speaks of every regenerate soul; "as new-born babes desire the sincere milk of the word." These heaven born souls, who are begotten of God in this spiritual city of Zion, have an earnest and hearty desire for God's truth and its ministration, that through it they "may grow thereby." Real citizens, who are born again of God, bear these marks and evidences, and many more also.
Now, in reference to the government of the city, there is the monarch, and there are the laws and regulations of the city. In an English city you have your Lord Mayor, aldermen, and common councilmen; and these sit and deliberate on all the affairs of the city. So, as it regards Zion, "the city of the great King;" He governs it, for "the government is upon his shoulders." It is said, "out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem." But for the ordering of the city, and the execution of the laws of Zion's King, He raises up His ministering servants, who are not only to preach the glad tidings of salvation, but to bear rule in the church of God in the name of the King. "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine." There is to be no lordship nor authority in the city; this belongs only to the King, the Lord Jesus Christ. "Ye call me Lord and Master; and ye say well, for so I am." But for the order and regulation of the city, the officers of the church of God are to see that the laws and statutes of King Jesus are properly attended to; and the word of the Lord has given directions to accomplish this end. "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works." So then, this city of the King of kings, and its inhabitants, spiritual men and spiritual women, are built upon Christ, the Rock of Ages. In this blessed city, they are swayed and governed by Jesus Christ, and here He rules over them by a holy sceptre, even the sceptre of His love and righteousness.
II. - Let us now come to "the river. " "There is a river, the streams whereof make glad the city of God."
1. This blessed river is the love of the triune God, the everlasting electing love of Jehovah. We read of it in the sacred scriptures as "a pure river of water of life... proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb." It runs all through time and will flow on in an unfathomable ocean throughout a never-ending eternity. Wherever there is an elect vessel of mercy, covenant love will be sure to find him out; it will discover him by regenerating grace in the appointed time, and arrest him in his conscience. One of our hymns expresses it-
The Lord loved Saul of Tarsus; and as the effect of that love, He arrested him in his conscience. So, in a similar way, He will arrest every one whom He has loved from eternity, and bring him to His blessed feet; He will begin in him the good work of grace, carry it on, and land him at last safe in immortal glory. Thus God's covenant love, His everlasting electing love, is a river springing up into eternal life. It began in Jehovah's eternal counsel and purpose; it runs on through time, and flows into eternity, making glad all the objects of His love and choice. This is the river, God's electing love, "the streams whereof make glad the city of God."
The Prophet Ezekiel, speaking on the subject of this river in its manifestations to the children of men, describes it in its first flowings forth as only "up to the ankles." Now, might not this represent the patriarchal dispensation? for in that dark period, very little of the glory of God, or the covenant love of Jehovah, were discoverable. Then, in the next place, he speaks of it as being "up to the knees." Might not this represent the Mosaic dispensation, in which there was a multitude of rites and ceremonies, and all pointing to the Lord Jesus Christ? And when he goes on to speak of the river as still rising higher, and coming to "the loins" - might not that represent the prophetic age, in which holy men spake more explicitly of the breakings forth of God's covenant love and mercy? At length we find the river so increased, that it is represented as "waters to swim in, a river that could not be passed over." O, God's covenant love bursting forth in the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ, is a river so broad that there is no swimming over it! "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." And the manifestation of this blessed love by the Holy Spirit to the souls of His people - this also is a river that never, never can be crossed: yea, God's covenant love is a boundless, bottomless sea to the inhabitants of this city.
Paul says, in writing to the Ephesians, "For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named; that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ." Yet, the Apostle Paul knew that neither the breadth, length, depth, nor height of the love of God could be described, for he says, it "passeth knowledge." William Huntington's sermon entitled, 'The Dimensions of Eternal Love' is one of the best discourses on God's covenant love I have ever seen.
2. The Lord Jesus Christ is particularly spoken of as a river. We cannot well separate God's covenant love from our Lord Jesus Christ, nor our Lord Jesus Christ from God's covenant love; for His glorious Person is the blessed channel through which the love of Jehovah's heart, and the love of His own heart, flow towards guilty sinners. The prophet Isaiah is directed to speak of it in this beautifully figurative language: "And a man shall be as an hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land." Our Lord Jesus Christ is this "river of water in a dry place."
Is not the church of God in herself a dry and barren land, without this blessed river? I hope and trust I am one of the citizens; but what hardness, dryness, and barrenness do I often feel in my soul! How I need this blessed river, the Lord Jesus Christ, to flow into my soul, to water it and make it fruitful in every good word and work! The same prophet, speaking of Christ, says, But there the glorious LORD will be unto us as a place of broad rivers and streams;" so that our Lord Jesus Christ is a place of broad rivers and streams to His citizens. We have this illustration both in the type and in the antitype itself. The children of Israel travelling through the wilderness, were typical of the Lord's family travelling through this world. They were in a desert land, and wanted water to drink; Moses smote the rock at Horeb, and there flowed from the smitten rock a river, a fountain, a stream of water; and wherever God's Israel went in all their turnings and windings, this river flowed after them, to supply their wants and necessities. The apostle Paul, writing to the church at Corinth, mentions this very circumstance. He says, "They all drank of that spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ." The water flowing from that rock is typical of the stream that flows from the Redeemer, and supplies the wants and necessities of His people in this time state. And do we not need the Lord's love, and His precious atoning blood, to follow us like a river that so we may drink of the brook by the way, and obtain joy and peace to our precious souls? What a mercy it is to be enabled to bathe in this fountain of the love and blood of a dear Redeemer! The citizens stand in need of this river. "When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth them for thirst, I the LORD will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water." The Lord Jesus Christ, then, is a glorious river to the spiritual inhabitants of this city.
3. The Holy Ghost and His divine influences, are compared in the scriptures to a river. If we turn our attention to John 7. 37, 38, we shall see it there blessedly set forth. "In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink. He that believeth in me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water." Wherever the Holy Spirit dwells in the soul of a sinner, He dwells in him as a river, as a fountain. Hence our Lord said to the woman of Samaria whom He met at Jacob's well, "Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again; but whosoever drinketh the water that I shall give him, shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life." So "there is a river, the streams whereof make glad the city of God."
It is a great mercy for a village to be well watered; but it is a greater mercy for a town, and especially for a large city, to have plenty of water. London could never have grown to what it is, in point of magnitude, were it not for the river that flows through it, and the bountiful springs of water that surround it. Zion, "the city of the living God," is watered with the river of the Holy Spirit of God. "There is a river, the streams whereof make glad the city of our God."
III. - Having made these remarks upon the river itself, we now take notice of "the streams which make glad the city of God." There are streams connected with this river that gladden the hearts of the spiritual citizens of Zion. What are these streams?
1. In the first place - the invitations of the gospel are one of the streams of this river, which, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, flow into and gladden the heart of the citizens. Is a spiritual citizen sighing, faint and discouraged because of the troubles of the way? Is his mind cast down and oppressed, so that he can scarcely crawl along? I am sometimes so weary, undone, and oppressed in my feelings, that I know not what to do. Well, the king of the city stoops to the citizens, and He says, "Come unto me, all ye that labour, and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Let the Holy Spirit cause this sweet stream to flow into the soul of the citizen, and it will draw him along with it to the dear Redeemer. He will sit down at the feet of his Lord, as beneath the shadow of a great rock in a weary land, and find rest to his soul. It is as this stream brings us near to a precious Christ, that we can cast our burden upon Him, and He sustains us; as Peter says, "Casting all your care upon him, for he careth for you." And thus, "All that the Father giveth me," says the King of the city, "shall come unto me." So this sweet stream, flowing from the blessed river, lays hold of a sinner, and brings him to Jesus.
Come, then, poor, weary, heavy-laden soul; however many your sins are, however hard your heart is, however filthy and depraved you may see yourself to be, the King of the city says, "Him that cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out." He never casts out any that come to Him, unless they come with a price in their hands; then He will have nothing at all to do with them, but will send them empty away. Bless His precious name - and it does my soul good as I talk to you about it - He will have nothing to do with any but beggars and insolvents! He says to such, "Come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. "O this is glorious to a sinner who knows he has nothing to bring, and feels himself utterly worthless. The sweet stream of gospel invitations thus gladdens the heart of the citizen of Zion. He feels himself thirsty, faint, and drooping, and he wants reviving and cheering. He wants a sweet taste of the water of life, a drop of the good old wine of the kingdom, and to drink of the stream that flows from this river, and that speaks thus, "Ho every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk, without money and without price. "O blessed invitation! May the Holy Spirit cause it to flow into the hearts of the citizens of Zion! May they be encouraged to come to "the fountain of living waters"! "The Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.' 'O' say some, 'but that does not fit you; you are a predestinarian. Here is a universal invitation, a stream flowing to everybody.' But, I see God's election in that text. 'You must have eagle eyes to see election there.' Well, let us try it by God's rule. "Whosoever will, let him come." Who is the man that will come? The man in a state of nature? O no. The Lord Himself says, "Ye will not come unto me, that ye might have life. " Man's will is opposed to coming; my will was opposed to coming once; but the Psalmist says, "Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power." God makes His people willing; and the gospel invitation is, "Whosoever will, let him come." But what are these invitations to us, if we are not willing? So, the invitations of the gospel are one of the streams of this river, which make glad the hearts of the citizens of Zion.
2. Another stream that flows from this river and makes glad the heart of the spiritual citizen, is pardoning love and mercy. This is a very sweet and gladdening stream; but it is neither sweet nor gladdening to those who do not feel themselves guilty and condemned. If you and I were talking of pardoning and forgiving a person, and that person were not conscious he had offended us, instead of cheering his heart, it would offend him: he would say, 'I do not want your mercy and pardon; I have not trespassed upon you, be it known to you. 'But pardon and forgiveness are sweet to the guilty and condemned citizens of Zion, who have had God's law carried into their conscience. If the law has taken hold of the citizen by the throat, and said, "Pay me that thou owest;" if he has been weighed in the balances of the sanctuary and found wanting; if he has been tried in the court of conscience he has been found guilty, both as it respects his outward actions and his inward intentions; for the Holy Spirit "is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." Many professors of religion think they are all right, so long as they can keep the outside of the cup and platter clean; and men think that such persons are very good and pious creatures, as long as this is the case; but all the while their hearts are guilty before God. But when the citizen of Zion feels that he is guilty within and without, that he is a condemned and miserable wretch, then pardoning mercy is sweet to him. There is not a real spiritual citizen of Zion, who is not crying and groaning in his mind because of his sins, and pleading for mercy and grace through Christ; for he makes Christ his only plea.
We read in 1 Kings 20, 31 of the servants of Benhadad saying to him after he had been overcome in battle, and fled away for safety, "Behold now, we have heard that the kings of the house of Israel are merciful kings; let us, I pray thee, put sackcloth on our loins, and ropes upon our heads, and go out to the king of Israel: peradventure he will save thy life." Now God brings every citizen of Zion before Him in his feelings, with sackcloth on his body and a rope round his neck, to fall down before His blessed Majesty, saying, 'O Lord, if Thou shouldest send me to hell, Thou wouldst be a just King! I deserve no favour at Thy hands; for I am a vile, guilty, and polluted criminal.' Therefore he cries with the publican, "God be merciful to me a sinner!" And was there not mercy in the heart of the king of Israel towards Benhadad when the servants came thus before him? Yes; for he took him up in his chariot, and caused him to ride with him. And is not the King of the city of Zion a merciful king? Does He not manifest His love to sinners? We see it in the case of Mary Magdalene. She came to the feet of Jesus with a broken and contrite heart; she was a mourner over sin, and wept before Him. But the Lord spake to her, and said, "Woman, thy sins which are many, are all forgiven thee." The streams of pardon flowed into her soul like a river, and caused a flood of tears to trickle down her cheeks. So with many others recorded in the scriptures this blessed stream of gospel mercy flowed into their hearts, giving them joy and peace. The prophet Micah felt it; for he said, "Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgressions of the remnant of his heritages he retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy." Is there a sweeter word than this in all the Bible? Come, poor guilty sinner, you have to do with a God that "delighteth in mercy;" your cry has gone up to Him; and the streams of His mercy flow towards you. He says, "I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy; and I will have compassion upon whom I will have compassion."
There is a declaration on this point which has flowed into my soul as a stream, and that has helped me on for many a year. I do not know what I could have done without it. The covenant God, speaking of the greatness of His mercy, says, "Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah; ... I will put my laws into their minds, and I will write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more." This is an exceeding great and precious promise of covenant mercy! It brings joy into my soul that I have to do with a God that says, "I will be merciful:" so that neither my sins, nor the devil, nor all the opposition that I feel from within or without can ever turn away His love from my soul. This fills my heart with gladness, and makes it shout for joy. It was the streams of this river, that flowed into the heart of the poor dying thief, and gladdened his heart; and this same stream flows into the souls of all true citizens, making glad their hearts, and will continue to do so till every vessel of mercy is landed safe in immortal glory.
There may be some citizens who are saying, 'I wish these streams of mercy would flow into my soul; I have been long beseeching the Lord to speak peace and pardon to my conscience, by saying, "Son, or daughter, go in peace." Sometimes I have thought the streams of the Lord's pardoning mercy were coming at last, but I am now all in doubt about it, and fear that they will never be mine.' Well, well, poor soul, be not dismayed; wait on the Lord; "Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen your heart, all ye that hope in the Lord." "The vision is for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it: because it will surely come, it will not tarry." Christ has shed His blood for the sins of His people; and the Holy Ghost will apply that precious blood to the consciences of the citizens, that they may feel its efficacy in purging away their guilt. By this sacred stream they are made as holy as Christ is holy, and as pure as He is pure. Paul says, "Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing." The stream of pardoning love and mercy is a blessed stream that flows from this river to make glad the citizens of Zion.
3. The promises of the gospel are another blessed stream that flows from this river to make glad the heart of the spiritual citizens. Peter says there "are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises." What makes them so exceedingly great and precious, and comforting to the hearts of God's people is, that they are unconditional! 'But,' say you, 'how are God's promises unconditional? They are unconditional to us because they do not depend for their fulfilment upon any obedience of ours; if they did, all their preciousness and sweetness would be gone. I cannot come before the Lord, and plead for any of His blessings on the ground of my own obedience or worthiness. Now can you, my friends? 'O no,' you say, 'this is not the way.' All the promises of God in the Lord Jesus are all "yea and amen," that is, sure and certain, and "to the glory of God by us." This constitutes a great part of the sweetness of the promises.
Do you not see how this meets the case of the Lord's people? The citizen comes before the King, and pleads with him, telling him his tale of woe. I am pleased with the tale of woe, and shall be as long as I live; and if you have not the same tale to tell the King, I very much doubt your citizenship, for every citizen is brought into the same feelings. He says, "O Lord, I am not worthy of the least of these thy mercies!" 'Well,' say you, 'I do feel this; it is the language of my heart and soul, and fits me well.' So the prayer of the spiritual citizen is: 'Heavenly Father, I cannot do without Thy blessings; I ask and plead for them in the name of Jesus, for he has said, "Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you." Do then look upon me, heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus; look upon me in the face of thine Anointed. O Lord, look down upon me, and help and bless me!' As the promise is brought home to your heart, under the bedewing influences of the Holy Spirit, the Lord will help and support you. He will uphold the heart of the righteous; He will strengthen them in the inner man; for He says, "I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee." He will go with them through the floods and the flames; be with them in the fiery furnace, and surely do them good.
If you have sat under the best preacher, you will want to sit under him again. 'Well,' say you, 'but who do you call the best preacher?' I will tell you, fearless of contradiction, who the best preacher is - it is the Holy Ghost! If you have been brought to the feet of Jesus; if the promises have been applied to your heart, and you have felt their sweetness and preciousness, you have been under the teachings of the Holy Spirit, and you know something of the streams of consolation and joy that make glad the heart of the citizens, and which flow from the righteousness and faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God.
One particular season in my experience comes into my mind. It was before I had entered the ministry, and some time after I had enjoyed peace and pardon, through an application of the precious blood of the cross. I was brought into what is called the 'weaning time,' as it is said, "Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts." I was now in great bondage, and sadly tempted to believe that all my religion was only a delusion, that I was only a stony-ground hearer, and that the seed of the word had been choked by the cares of the world. How my soul sunk within me because I had joined the church, and had gone among the Lord's people, telling them what He had done for my soul! In this dark season, when the temptations of the Devil prevailed against me, I said, 'I wished I had never joined the church, for I was sure I should soon fall, and bring a disgrace upon the cause.' Weeks and months passed by, during which my soul remained in a dark and stupid state; yet the Lord was at work upon me all the while. I felt such groanings and sighings to the Lord day and night: and at every opportunity I was found at the throne of grace beseeching Him to appear for me. I think I now see the place, it is in the eye of my mind while I am now talking with you. But when I was upon my knees sighing and breathing out the desires of my soul to the Lord, these words were dropped into my heart by the Holy Ghost. "The eyes of the LORD are upon the righteous, and his ear is open to their cry." From that sweet text, I was led from one portion to another; and the Holy Spirit preached to my soul a sermon at that time which I shall never forget. Afterwards I walked to and fro in the fields under these blessed bedewings, and felt such streams of joy and gladness in my heart that I never felt before.
It is as the streams of this river flow into the heart, through the sweet influences of the Holy Spirit, that the citizens of the city of God, the Church of the living God, are made glad. May the Lord cause these streams of mercy to flow into our souls more powerfully, that our hearts may be made glad, and that we may rejoice and triumph in the Lord alone.