When these precious doctrines of ours—referring to the absolute sovereignty of God over all things—are twisted in such a way as to perpetuate gloom, severity, introspection, accusations, slander, gnat-strangling, and more, the soul is never safe. The doctrines of grace are doctrines of gladness.
But whenever God delivers His people in any remarkable way, as the years go by, the new wineskin will turn gradually into an old wineskin. Part of this process is that the number of unregenerate people will start to grow, but they are stuck with the vocabulary of the previous great reformation and revival. Grumpy people are stuck with the vocabulary of gladness. This gives them new material to work on, new and challenging material to distort. Given enough time, however, distort it they will.
“And they shall be upon thee for a sign and for a wonder, and upon thy seed for ever. Because thou servedst not the Lord thy God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things; Therefore shalt thou serve thine enemies which the Lord shall send against thee, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things: and he shall put a yoke of iron upon thy neck, until he have destroyed thee” (Deut. 28:46–48).
Summary of the Text:
In this chapter of Deuteronomy, the people of Israel are being instructed on the nature of the blessings and curses that will come upon them in accordance with their obedience or disobedience to the covenant. That whole chapter makes for sobering reading. The blessings are outlined in the first 14 verses. But beginning at verse 15, the bulk of the chapter is dedicated to a description of the curses that will come upon them. Not only will God curse them, but He will rejoice over their destruction (v. 63). Destroying them will bring Him joy. But right in the middle of that, in our text, we are told why the people of God veered away from the blessings that follow obedience and into the dark world of insanity and disobedience.
It was because, while they had the blessings, they did not treat them or respond to them as blessings. Responding to blessing with greed or with guilt incurs wrath. The required response was gratitude. The curses will therefore rest upon them for a sign and a wonder, and on their descendants as well (v. 46). The reason is then given. They are cursed because they did not serve God with two attitudes of thanksgiving—with joyfulness and with gladness of heart (v. 47). On top of this, they were not joyful and glad in heart because of all the stuff (v. 47). And that is why they will be turned out, consigned to the cruelties of their enemies, to the point of their final destruction (v. 48).
Lifted Out of the Mire:
As we will see later in this series, when we come to describe the sin of man, the heart of man really is desperately wicked. Who can understand it (Jer. 17:9)? But part of this desperate wickedness and confusion can be seen in the refusal to get up when God declares an invitation to do so. We must humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God (1 Pet. 5:6). But if we have humbled ourselves in truth, then we won’t kick and squall when He does the next thing, which is to exalt us, lifting us up into gladness. If the humility does not end in gladness and triumph, then the humility did not begin (really) in humility at all. Humility submits, and does not insist on groveling permanently.
“Glory and honour are in his presence; Strength and gladness are in his place” (1 Chron. 16:27).
“And the children of Israel that were present at Jerusalem kept the feast of unleavened bread seven days with great gladness: and the Levites and the priests praised the Lord day by day, singing with loud instruments unto the Lord” (2 Chron. 30:21).
“The hope of the righteous shall be gladness: But the expectation of the wicked shall perish” (Prov. 10:28).
“And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart” (Acts 2:46).
Some Historical Observations:
So we are addressing a biblical concept, but are not using a biblical word for it. Where do we get this word Chestertonian for what we are talking about? Chesterton was a character who was renowned for jovial and combative insight. He fought unbelief effectively, but he fought like a cavalier and not like a thug. And here is C.S. Lewis describing the early Puritans.
“But there is no understanding the period of the Reformation in England until we have grasped the fact that the quarrel between the Puritans and the Papists was not primarily a quarrel between rigorism and indulgence, and that, in so far as it was, the rigorism was on the Roman side. On many questions, and specially in their view of the marriage bed, the Puritans were the indulgent party; if we may without disrespect so use the name of a great Roman Catholic, a great writer, and a great man, they were much more Chestertonian than their adversaries” (C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, p. 116, emphasis mine).
As participants in a great and true reformation, this attitude really was characteristic of the early Protestants, for the first century or so. Lewis again: “From this buoyant humility, this farewell to the self with all its good resolutions, anxiety, scruples, and motive-scratchings, all the Protestant doctrines originally sprang” (English Lit, p. 33). There were many things going on, but a driving force in the Reformation was the free declaration of a free grace that offered free forgiveness of sin. And the people knew it.
And here is the central point—this demeanor, this Spirit-given, Christ-exalting demeanor—is an essential part of the program. It is not an add-on extra.
Leaning Toward Resurrection:
But it is not just “spiritual.” We are forgiven, but remember that we are forgiven in a material world. But among the pious, the suspicion that is directed against an exuberant gratitude for stuff is a suspicion that places the things of earth in some kind of a competition with the things of heaven. This world competes with the eternal things, and so what we must do is get a five gallon bucket of dour paint thinner, and pour it over all our material possessions. We try to make Heaven thick by making earth thin. This is wrong-headed, and incurs the latter half of Deuteronomy 28 to boot.We try to make Heaven thick by making earth thin.
What we must do is receive all God’s covenantal blessings, as thick as we can conceive of them, and then imagine how much thicker Heaven will be. Let Jesus cut the bacon, in other words. [Not part of the sermon, but a note to the reader. If you want to pursue this, as you should, let me recommend Joe Rigney’s book The Things of Earth.] We receive these blessings, in the name of Christ, as hors d’oeuvres, to whet the appetite, to make us long for more. We are not trying to get out of a prison. We are trying to get out of the entry room, and into the mansion.
In George Herbert’s lovely poem, Sunday, he describes the Lord’s Day as “the next world’s bud.” Later in the poem, he calls Sunday “a day of mirth.” This is no incongruity. James, the Lord’s brother, suggested that if someone was merry he should sing psalms (Jas. 5:13).
“Puritan poets . . . knew that part of their work in this world was to wean their affections from the unmixed love of it. But they also knew that this world was God’s metaphor for His communicable glories and that another part of their duty was to see and utter that metaphor, to use the figural value of this world to turn their attentions and affections to the next” (Daly, God’s Altar, p. 81).