Though God has promised that no weapon formed against Zion shall prosper, yet he has not promised that no weapon shall be formed against Zion. He has promised that the flame shall not kindle upon her, but he has not promised that she shall not walk through the fire. He has promised that the rivers shall not overflow her, but he has not promised that she shall not pass through the waters. He has promised to redeem her from her enemies, but he has not promised that she shall have no enemies.
On the contrary, he has always dealt candidly with her, and told her to expect tears, sighs, waters of a full cup, hatred, slander, contempt, temptation, tribulation, distress, persecution, fa mine, nakedness, peril, the sword. "If ye were of the world, the world would love his own; but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you. The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.""We must, through much tribulation, enter into the kingdom of God." "Many are the afflictions of the righteous." Old Giant Pope cannot do as once he did; but he has a good will to be at the saints, if he could. He bites his nails, he gnaws his tongue, and he grins and snarls at pilgrims as they pass right along. It is rather out of fashion, just now, to burn heretics; but there have been martyrs even in this century. The world has not at all improved in its temper towards Christ and holiness, towards God's people or his commandments.
The mode of expressing this hostility varies according to circumstances. When chains, and dungeons, and faggots, are laid aside, slander, railing, and the denial of social rights succeed. Nothing expresses deeper malignity, nothing is harder to bear than those "cruel mockings," of which Paul speaks. "And they cast him out," expresses a world of wrong. The infamous Jeffreys has sent his name down to posterity as the embodiment of cruelty, not only for the innocent victims he doomed to death, but for the brutal revilings he heaped on their heads. He has on earth many petty imitators.
In this age and land of peace it is hard to form a conception of the sufferings of our brethren in days of bloody persecution. We might get some idea of that "utmost thrill of agony, to which the flesh and blood of holy men were wrought;" we can fill our minds with strong images of scourgings, fetters, and racks. But who can tell the fears, the anguish, the torture of the mind, when government becomes a praise to them who do ill, and a terror to those who do well? "Persecution often does in this life what the last day will do completely — separate the wheat from the tares." But even that good is gained at a fearful expense. O that the blood of saints might flow no more!
But at all times the true church of God is composed of a suffering people. They mourn, they weep, they sigh, and cry for the abominations done in the land. They have fightings without, and fears within. Temptations harass, and iniquities confound them. They are troubled on every side; they are perplexed; they are cast down; death works in them; and yet they faint not.
Why do God's people thus suffer? To say that sorrow is the lot of humanity, is to speak like a heathen. Is there no difference between the righteous and the wicked? The Judge of all the earth does discriminate. To say that this suffering is unavoidable, means nothing, unless it is intended that we should wrap ourselves in the mantle of sullenness, or find comfort in denying providence. God could avert any evil. He has twice averted death. Why are the saints sufferers?
One answer is, that the Lord chasteneth every son whom he receiveth. He doth not afflict willingly. As many as he loves, he rebukes and chastens. An enemy, a reprobate, a doomed man may escape correction; but a child is loved too tenderly to be indulged in sin. His soul's good is sought. On this point the Scriptures speak very fully. Heb. 12:5-11.
So that all is sent in mercy. Thus we get our comforts; thus we get our crosses. The Lord thinks upon us, and gives us today a correction; tomorrow a cordial. We see not the mercy at the first; but at last it appears. Jacob thought all against him, till he saw the wagons. Then and thenceforward he read the book of providence with new eyes.
Nor is divine wisdom less apparent. "The Lord tempereth the wind to the shorn lamb." That is not found in the Bible, but here is some thing like it: "He stayeth his rough wind in the day of the east wind." Is. 27:8. Blessed be God; "he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust." Ps. 103:14 Jeremiah had good cause for praying, "O Lord, correct me, but with judgment; not in thine anger, lest thou bring me to nothing." Jer. 10:24. God has, with equal wisdom and mercy, promised, "I will not contend forever, neither will I be always wroth; for the spirit should fail before me, and the souls which I have made." Is. 57:16. God never goes too far. He never strikes a stroke too much.
God causes his church to suffer because he would be faithful. He has promised to finish the work of faith with power; he has pledged his word that his people's sanctification shall be completed; he has led them to hope that he will present them faultless before the throne of his glory. He will fulfill his word. His faithfulness is unto all generations. The work of grace progresses best under seasonable griefs, and the child of sorrow sings, "I know, O Lord, that thou, in faithfulness, hast afflicted me." Ps. 119:75.
All this is done in power. Everything is controlled, directed, restrained. Every lion is chained. Every wild beast is caged. Every spirit is let loose, or held back by the will of Him who filleth all in all. When Satan would afflict Job, he must first appear before God, and obtain permission. Did not Jesus say to Pilate, "Thou couldst have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above?" John 19:11. When the wicked afflict the righteous, they are God's sword — God's hand. Ps. 17:13, 14. They are his axe, his saw, his rod, his staff. Is. 10:15. Do Hadad the Edomite, and Rezon the son of Eliadah, become adversaries of Solomon? it is because the Lord has "stirred them up." 1 Kings 11:14, 23. Does Shimei the Benjamite, curse King David? it is because "the Lord hath bidden him." 2 Sam. 16:11.
All the sufferings of the Church are productive of good; yea, "all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose." Rom. 8:28. And is it not the distinct testimony of every saint who has passed through the furnace, "It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn thy statutes?" Ps. 119:71. Blessed be the Lord, his afflicted people "know that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope; and hope maketh not ashamed." Rom. 5:3-5. "Blessed is the man that endureth temptation; for when he is tried he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him." Jas. 1:12. The fruit gathered at the tree of sorrow, whose bud is so bitter, cannot be surpassed for sweetness.
Much affliction is chiefly for the benefit of others. It both instructs and animates them. "Take, my brethren, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience." Jas. 5:10. The patterns set us by others teach us how to suffer and to die. The lessons taught by the martyrs will be profitable to the end of the world.
Besides all this, the Church is but following her Head, when she suffers. His sorrows were far greater than hers. He suffered for sins to expiate guilt. He was the man of sorrows. "If we suffer with him, we shall also reign with him." Therefore, let the modern Church follow the example of the Church under a darker dispensation, and say, "Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord shall be a light unto me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against him, until he plead my cause, and execute judgment for me: he will bring me forth to the light, and I shall behold his righteousness." Micah 7:8, 9. “God's time to visit his people with his comforts is, when they are most destitute of other comforts, and other comforters." Marvelous are his tender mercies. Blessed be his great and holy name forever and ever.
- W.S. Plumer, The Church and Her Enemies, Chapter 6