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Automatic Life

Automatic Life poster

This is the word of the Lord unto Zerubbabel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit saith the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6).

Back of this old text is one of the most striking and beautiful visions of the Old Testament. The prophet Ezekiel is standing in the sanctuary which represents the Church of God and the Christian life. On one side stands the golden candlestick with its sevenfold light, the ancient type of the Holy Ghost. It is the only light of the sacred chamber. There are no windows to God’s tabernacle. The light of Earth does not mingle with the light divine. The church and the Christian are both dependent upon the supernatural. But forth from that sevenfold lamp of God there flows perfect and sufficient light, the glorious type of Christ, the Light of the world.

But as we gaze with the prophet, we see a new wonder. How is the lamp kept burning? And how is the oil supplied and maintained? How original and exquisite the symbol? There is no mechanism of human hands, of oil bestowed or ministering priest. But automatically from two living olive trees the ripe olives pour the oil into two golden pipes which carry it to the central reservoir from which it flows down to every pipe and every lamp. The oil never fails; the light never wanes. Night and day the living trees supply the precious fluid and the golden vessels bear it to the lamps that burn and shine like living flames.


The first obvious lesson which the symbol brings is that the life of the church and the Christian is supernatural and divine. This is the lesson which through all the days God has been repeating and emphasizing to His dull and unresponsive people. It was the special purpose of those ancient miracles amid which the Mosaic revelation and Hebrew dispensation were born. God made things hard so that God alone could relieve the impossible conditions. The one message that flames from the mount of fire and the pillar of cloud, the Red Sea and the Jordan, the fall of Jericho and the story of David, is “God is in the midst” and “the shout of a king is among you.” “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.” The conflict of Elijah is the conflict against the supernatural faith. The one protest of Isaiah was against the spirit that went down to Egypt and rested in the arm of flesh. The lamentations of Jeremiah were that His people forsook the fountain of living waters and hewed out for themselves broken cisterns that would hold no water, and now, in these days of restoration, when God had made His people poor and weak in order that He might be their strength, again the temptation was renewed, and Tobiah, and Sanballat, and the people around them were constantly seeking to lead them into some compromise which would surrender the supernatural and lead them to trust in man.

Today this is the religious question of the age, the heart of all the questions that are agitating religious pulpits, periodicals, presbyteries, and conferences. Is there a supernatural God? Or is He Himself, as one of the recent philosophers puts it, the product of evolution? Is there a supernatural Bible or is it a combination of the human and the divine in which the final authority rests with somebody’s reason? Is the church a supernatural institution or a club dependent for success upon the brains of the pulpit and the money and social weight of the pew? Is Christian life a miracle of grace or a product of culture and then development of character? Are piety, faith, and love, the result of a peculiar movement of the brain cells, or a divine birth and divine indwelling? Is the body wholly dependent upon medical science, hygiene, and the modern fad of eugenics, or is the great Physician still “the same yesterday, today and forever?” It is the old question of the prophets of Baal, the challenge of Elijah, and the message of Zechariah.

Dr. Biederwolf, a distinguished evangelist, said the other day to five thousand people, that if he wanted to make his son an infidel by the shortest course, he would send him to Princeton of the Chicago University. A bold Episcopal rector, who resigned his salary and pulpit the other day in Newark, N.J., because his people wanted him to play to their fashionable worldly tastes, and like Samson minister to their amusement, instead of giving them the Word of the living God, declared last week that the modern preacher was made by putting him into the ecclesiastical foundry and pouring the raw materials into an ecclesiastical mould, and then waiting till it cooled and got cold enough to preach.

Dr. Johnson of Boston, declared the other day at the Laymen’s Missionary Conference in New York to a meeting of 200 ministers that in the average church of his denomination you could count on your fingers the people who could pray; that if a circus came to town on prayer-meeting night, it would be impossible to hold the prayer-meeting for lack of an audience.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to have spiritual surroundings can scarcely realize the conditions into which nominal Christianity is drifting because of the compromises of our time, the substitution of modern culture and character and humanitarianism for God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost.

The remedy, the only remedy, the imperative remedy for the downgrade, which has at last become a drift and threatens soon to be a deluge is Zechariah’s message, Elijah’s message, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.”


The life of the church and the Christian is not only supernatural and divine, but automatic. The first lesson is taught by the lamp, the only light of the tabernacle, but the second by the living trees which supplied that oil. How wonderful and beautiful is this picture of a self-moving process which supplied the source of life and light without the touch of human hands by the great law of spontaneous force. Was this not the thought in the mind of Paul when he used that splendid expression, “The law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death?” To him the power of the Christian life was a great automatic principle that maintained itself.

There is an infinite difference between mechanical and vital processes. You build a house mechanically by adding piece to piece. But God builds a tree automatically by a process of life and growth. The trouble with human religions is that they are made with hammer, saw and nails. The Polynesians are said to plant a cocoanut [sic]  tree over the graves of their dead and tie on the branches the cocoanuts [sic] with which to feed them in the other world. They are very much like the average Christians; what fruit they have is tied on, and there is always a dead man at the root. God’s better way is life. The “works of the flesh” are contrasted with “the fruit of the Spirit.” The apples and the grapes hang on the branches because they cannot help it. So true spiritual progress and service spring from spontaneous life. Christ’s direction to His disciples was not to try to bear fruit but to keep in living contact with the Vine and they would bear much fruit automatically.

The same principle applies to our Christian work. The cause of Christ is dependent on the life of Christ and the power of the Holy Ghost. The secret of revival and missionary success is not more organization or effort, so much as more spiritual power and more intense believing prayer.

I stood in the City of St. John and looked out upon the splendid bay, which a few hours before had been covered with floating vessels destined for many ports. But that morning it was but a sea of mud. The ships were all stranded and keeled over, and it seemed that nothing but a miracle could ever restore them. So sometimes the work of God appears to be stranded, too. But as the hours went by, the heavens kissed those receding waters, and the tide began to rise, and in a little while those vessels all rose with the rising flood and prepared to steam for their distant harbors with their precious freight. So the power of the Holy Ghost alone can lift our discouraged and defeated forces to strength and victory. It is God we need, and God’s remedy for all our missionary problems is “Pray ye the Lord of the harvest that he would thrust forth laborers into his harvest.”

Nearly a score of years ago, in The Moody Church, Chicago, we were holding a missionary convention during the World’s Fair in that city. The great congregation had assembled for a missionary mass meeting and one of the workers had just given a depressing speech in which he scolded all the people that were not there and bewailed the dreadful condition of the world and the unfaithfulness of the church, and exhorted us with desperate energy to take hold and work harder for the failing cause of world evangelism. Then Stephen Merritt rose to close the meeting, and some of us shall never forget the electric effect of that eccentric and yet, hallowed message. In eloquent pantomime, in which he was inimitable, he suddenly described a stalled train, and pictured the speaker that had just preceded him with his coat off, his shoulder to the wheel, and the perspiration running down his face as he tried to make it go. Then suddenly the scene changed. The desperate efforts of the pusher had failed. The speaker called upon the engineer. There was a sudden toot-toot of the whistle signaling the start. The piston began to move, the wheels turned, and the speaker shouted to the poor man in the rear who was sweating from his efforts to jump aboard, for the train had started, and he would be left behind. And then with dramatic power he solemnly added, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.”


The message of the prophet adds several striking applications of this supernatural and automatic force.

  1. It used the weakest materials. You do not need to be great and strong in years, but only yielded and adjusted. “Who hath despised the day of small things?” Like Gideon, our greatest handicap is often our strength, and our greatest need, to be reduced to such dimensions that there shall be room for God.
  2. It does straight and perfect work. “Thou shalt see the plummet in the hand of Zerubbabel!” The plummet stands for mechanical work, and the Holy Ghost does only the work that will stand the hardest tests.
  3. It is not discouraged by difficulties. “Who art thou, O, great mountain?” it cries. “Before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain.” In fact, the difficulty is the best test of God and the supernatural. Spurgeon used to say that the best evidence that you were in the Lord’s will is the devil’s growl. When the enemies are thick and strong, we may be sure that the heavenly hosts are near.
  4. It guarantees a finished work and a victorious consummation. “Thou shalt bring forth the headstone with shoutings, Grace, grace unto it.”
  5. The co-operating forces are not forgotten in this vision. They are the forces of united prayer. The two olive trees represent God, the Source of life and power, the two Persons of the Godhead especially, Christ on the heaven side and the Holy Ghost on the Earth side.

There are also two olive branches which connect with the olive trees, with the reservoir and the pipes. These two olive branches are God’s beautiful types of fellowship and prayer. These heavenly forces are at our command.

“For this will I be inquired of by the house of Israel to do it for them.” O, beloved, how little we appreciate and prove our infinite resources, the open pipes of prevailing prayer!

  1. Perhaps the most important lesson of all yet remains. All these heavenly forces are freely offered to all who will accept and use them. “He shall bring forth a headstone with shoutings, Grace, grace unto it.” Grace—this is the great distinguishing word between the Old Testament and the New, between the law and the gospel, between the best that man can do and God’s best. It is true that the most valuable things in the universe are all free. God gives us the sunshine, the air, the forces of electricity, gravitation, all the bounties of His providence, all the riches of His grace, His own life and power, all for the taking. All these forces that we have been speaking of are as valuable as they are invaluable. God is waiting to bestow them upon all who will receive and use them according to the laws of the spiritual kingdom for His glory and His cause. The marvelous revelations of modern science and the discovery of the latest forces of nature are but a parable of the yet undiscovered forces of grace that are awaiting Christian faith and obedience. We sometimes seems to think that God has given us salvation as a free gift, but that we must work our passage to heaven. Nay, beloved, the deeper experiences of our Christian life—His cleansing, sanctifying power, His all-sufficient grace and strength for service, His cooperating providence and blessing—all these await the call of faith and believing prayer. He gives what He commands. He supplies what He asks.

A poor woman was bewailing her hard and helpless lot as the monthly rent became due. She was ashamed to meet her landlord; so she locked her door, shut herself in to weep alone. The bell rang and rang again and again. But she had not the heart to answer. When evening came, she stole out amid the shadows to get some scant supplies. Suddenly she met on the street an old friend who accosted her with great cordiality, and asked her where she had been, for he had called and tried to find her, but she was not at home. An old friend of her late husband’s had sent him a valuable gift for her, remarking that her rent might be coming due, and he wished to help her. She looked up with a pathetic mixture of a smile and a sob. She said, “Was it you that rang the bell? I thought it was the landlord, and I had not the face to answer. If I had known it was you, the door would have soon opened.” Yes, we think God is coming to collect the rent, demanding things that we are unable to give, and forgetting that He always comes with His claims and requisitions, and that our very works are prepared for us as well as our robes of salvation. Shall we take what He so freely gives and go forth in His all-sufficiency to realize all that He asks of us, expects from us, and pledges to us?

Henry Varley used to say that when he looked at yonder sun, and remembered that for 6,000 years or more it had been pouring out its light and warmth to quicken the world, and it was yet inexhaustible, it seemed a little thing for God, our Sun of Righteousness, to meet our petty needs and fill our lives with sunshine, power and victory. Let us take His fullness, and let us go forth as children of a King to a life of prestige, victory, and praise, calling, “Thanks be unto God who always causeth us to triumph by Christ Jesus.”

Dr. A.J. Gordon once said: “I have long since ceased to pray, ‘Lord Jesus, have compassion upon a lost world.’ I remember the day and the hour when I seemed to hear the Lord rebuking me for making such a prayer. He seemed to say to me: ‘I have had compassion upon a lost world, and now it is time for you to have compassion: I have given my heart, now give your heart.’”