The Key To Fruitfulness
“In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the LORD thy Redeemer”—Isaiah 54:8.
Last Sunday was Easter Day. There were present in this church many who, more than likely, had not been with us or at any church since the previous Easter Day, and undoubtedly some who did not know Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. As best I knew how, though always I admit the inadequacy of it, I sought to preach what I believed to be the essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. At the conclusion of the service, I gave an invitation and the net was empty. Have you been thinking about that at all this week? I have to live with it always. Perhaps more uncomfortable still, I have to meet the Lord about it too. Lord, why should this be? Show me what it is in my life that blocks the road to blessing. Make me willing to deal with it, whatever it might cost me. Anything rather than that my life should be barren of fruit. I have been wondering as I have been praying how many of my dear friends at The Moody Church have shared that burden with me this week. It would be interesting to know how many sought the Lord about it when they left church last Sunday. Does the responsibility begin and end with the pulpit do you think, or is it something in which the whole fellowship of the church must share? I recognize of course, that the pastor carries the heavy end of the load and rightly so, and yet is everybody else exempt? Can we just pronounce the benediction and go out into the ambulatory and start talking about social matters and be indifferent to what takes place in the Sunday morning hour in the sanctuary, or do we carry the burden with us and seek the Lord’s face for an answer concerning it? Each of us must answer that for ourselves.
In such a situation there is only one thing I know to do, and that is to turn to the Word of God. As I turned to my Bible to consider the message for today, I read: “Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail…” At once God seemed to drive this word (which had come in the course of this series of messages) right into my heart as so applicable to what happened last Sunday morning.
Let me share some of the things that the Lord has been saying to me about it, and I trust He may be saying them to you also. I believe that God wants to speak to us in what I have called—
1. The Discipline of the Government of God
As we recall the sequence of teaching in this section of the prophecy, we read of God’s call to His people concerning an exit from captivity in Isaiah 52:11—“Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out from thence, touch no unclean thing; go ye out of the midst of her; be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the Lord.” Then we read in Isaiah 53 of the servant of Jehovah who became the sinbearer of His people and our sinbearer, too, at such infinite cost. But now in chapter 54, we are face to face again with the desolation of Jerusalem. Notice how the Holy Spirit describes that. Remember He is God, and therefore He cannot err. “O barren…the children of the desolate” (v. 1); “the Lord hath called thee as a woman forsaken…for a small moment have I forsaken thee” (V. 6, 7). Here is how God is speaking to these people of His—barren, desolate, forsaken—and the One Who spoke those words cannot possibly be wrong. Indeed, they are underlined for us by the contemporary preacher of the time, Nehemiah: “Ye see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire” (Nehemiah 2:17). But how is this? The Lord has put away sin at the cost of His wounds and stripes and death. How then can this city lie as a sort of open sore upon the face of the earth? How can this continue to be? Cannot God’s forgiveness, which has triumphed over sin, triumph also over the wreckage and damage which sin causes? How can any redemption be complete if it fails to grapple with the fruit of our wrongdoing?
These questions open up a tremendous subject; it is one that touches every one of us, and from which none of us is excluded. May I lovingly probe into you heart? We are conscious that though sin, when it is repented of and forsaken, is forgiven, yet the consequences of it remain. The consequences of sin are seen here in this picture of a ruined city. I suggest to you that the empty net is another symptom. We cannot undo the past. God Himself cannot undo the past. Those seventy years of captivity, with all the shame and the sorrow involved, with all the lost opportunities, they cannot just be wiped off as though they had never happened. It could never again be with Israel as though those years had never been, for they had left their mark.
Look back upon your Christian life. Pause and reflect upon periods of carelessness and prayerlessness, of sin of which the memory is vivid and humiliating, which had resulted in a cold heart and perhaps a silent testimony, and nothing of this happened in solitude because you are a Christian. It is a family matter and the family of God’s people is affected. Now look at the fifth verse where He uses the word “Redeemer”—“The Lord of hosts is His name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel.” Again in verse 8: “…with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer.” What does that word mean, and what about Romans 5:21? “As sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.” What about Isaiah 55:13—“Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree”?
Do you not feel yourselves asking these questions sometimes and wondering? Must the life of a redeemed soul be fruitless? Must a man, having made his bed, lie on it? Though sin may be forgiven eternally, has it to haunt him for all the rest of his life? How does God deal with sin? Let me answer that by illustration.
Suppose a man is taken into custody in Chicago because he is drunk and disorderly. There are two results which follow: in the first place he has broken the law of the country, and for this he is either fined or put in prison. In the second place, he has a headache, depression, and a nervous reaction, and these last three things follow that man long after his relationship to the law of the country has been put right, especially if he continues in the habit.
Or again (perhaps this is nearer home for some of us), a man is devoted to his business, so much so that he never has any time for his home or his family, and night after night he is away from his children until they come to think of him as a complete stranger. They have no companionship with their father and ultimately they have no confidence in him. The sacred ties of parenthood have been torn apart. The mother can’t supply the strength and firmness that is needed to hold that situation together, and almost without noticing it, imperceptibly through the years the family begins to drift apart. Years go by and then the father wakes up with a shock when it is too late. Something has happened to one of his precious children. They are men and women now. They sought companionship and friendship away from their family, away from home and parents, and this has led to disaster. Too late the father sees his mistake and he tries to remedy it. The love of the children has gone beyond recall. He is forgiven by God, he is forgiven by his wife who has clung to him through the years, but he can never undo the damage of the past. For the rest of that man’s life he stands amid the ruins of his Jerusalem.
I don’t need to go outside the Bible to illustrate this. Put into the context of Scripture, when I sin against God two things happen. My sin cries out to heaven and its voice goes up to the throne, and it can only be silenced when in humility, repentance, and shame I plead the blood of Jesus Christ, and taking that sacrifice into my hands and going into the holiest of all, presenting it as the basis of my forgiveness, immediately I am forgiven and cleansed and I have peace and rest and deliverance from the guilt and penalty of that sin—immediately, but the consequences remain. When Nathan spoke to David by parable and said to him: “David, thou art the man,” David’s silence was broken, his heart was broken, and he cried: “I have sinned!” and immediately the answer came, “The Lord hath put away thy sin, but the sword shall never depart from thy house.” So far as the sin lay between David’s soul and God, it was removed immediately by his confession. But so far as the consequences were concerned, they followed him for years. Bathsheba’s son died. His son Amnon was murdered. Absalom betrayed him. The kingdom was torn in two. All of this was the discipline of the government of God from which there was no escape; it was the harvest which he had sown.
That needs no underlining, does it? Recall the assurance in Isaiah 40 when God said: “Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned” and compare that with the language of chapter 54, which speaks of her ruin and waste.
I want to say to you with deep conviction yet with great love in my heart that through repentance and faith we receive the immediate and perfect pardon of Jesus, but if the ruin of Jerusalem says anything to my heart, it reminds me of the scar that sin has left. It reminds me of the lost years and the wasted opportunities, and it speaks with conviction when the Word of God says: “O barren, thou that didst not bear, thou that didst not travail.” To serve the Lord without result, to have little sense of His presence in your life, to suffer intolerably in your mind, all of these are the disciplines of the government of God. The natural consequences of sin remain long after the penalty and guilt have gone and have been buried in the deepest sea. One look of confession and faith and we are forgiven, but we sow what we reap. Would you please put yourself in that picture and ask yourself this question in the presence of God: Can it be that there is any connection between that and your fruitless service and the empty net of last Sunday morning?
This is not the only side of the picture, for in His mercy God also speaks concerning—
2. The Discovery of the Grace of God
Notice that He speaks to this barren, fruitless, desolate city and says: “Sing…break forth into singing, and cry aloud.” But Lord, how can I sing? With the city in ruins, with the temple burned, with the marks and scars and fruitlessness, how can I sing? Sing, says the Lord, not because of what you are, but because of something I have promised you: “Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes; for thou shalt break forth on the right hand and on the left; and thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles, and make the desolate cities to be inhabited. Fear not; for thou shalt not be ashamed: neither be thou confounded; for thou shalt not be put to shame: for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more. For thy Maker is thine husband; the Lord of hosts is His name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel; the God of the whole earth shall He be called (Isaiah 54:2–5). Here the Lord is saying to His people who are conscious of barrenness, “Sing, prepare for the incoming of a great host, make room for a great ingathering and a great harvest!” But Lord, You told me that though You may forgive me, the result of my backsliding must stay with me. You cannot give me back those years of bondage. You cannot remove the scar, the bruise, the wound, and you cannot prevent the inevitable recoil of what I have been—Lord, how can I sing? Ah, says the Lord, Yes, you can sing! You will sing as you did when you came out of Egypt, only with this difference—you won’t be so exuberant as you used to be, no. But in your heart there’ll be a deep insight into the grace of God which, in addition to giving you an abundant pardon, can transform the past and can change the brier into a myrtle and the thorn into a fir tree, and can make fruitlessness become fruitfulness. You will sing.
Oh, thank God, He can make men and women in middle life sing again with a joy that has been chastened by a memory of their past failures. Adam’s sin was overruled to the blessing of the world, and so in His goodness you and I may rise out of the fall, and triumph out of defeat, and through years in a wilderness we may enter into the land of blessing and victory.
The captivity of God’s people was disastrous as it brought suffering and loss for a period of years. They were never the same again, yet in the overruling mercy of God, how He blessed them. In the lessons of those captivity years they learned three things. They learned first that the Holy One of Israel is the God of all the earth: “…thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel; the God of the whole earth shall He be called” (Isaiah 54:5). Secondly, they began to understand the meaning of worship and to realize it did not require the temple, the altar, and the sacrifice. It was out of the days and years of captivity there was born the synagogue with its simple form of worship, with the approach of each individual soul to God. They learned the simplicity of worship. Thirdly, they were faced with a world mission. He gave them to understand that they were stewards of God’s truth: “…thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles, and make the desolate cities to be inhabited” (v. 3). The chastisement of God was the means of touching the darkness of all that affliction and transforming it into pure gold to His glory.
The man who bears the scars of the past is made intent on the saving of other people who are the victims of that which used to bind him. There is no one with such a burden for the man who is gripped by some plague as the man who has been delivered from that very thing, who is back to face his colleagues with a passion for them that he knew nothing about until the Lord brought about his own recovery and lifted him up out of the mess of his life. The father who has failed in his home responsibilities has become strangely tender in his love. Into the man who has suffered from the results of his own sin, even his sin as a Christian, God has put the soul of a prophet, the burden of the intercessor to pray, the humility, the tenderness, the understanding of the temptations of other people. The prodigal who has been pardoned can speak of the father’s love in a way that the elder brother never could.
We therefore may bitterly lament the loss to ourselves and others caused by our sinfulness, and yet we sing with a new meaning as we see God beginning to transform the waste and restoring to us the years, and as a result of this there are new thoughts of Him, there is a new sense of intimacy in our fellowship with Him, there is a new passion that takes in the whole world in its need of Christ.
3. The Deliverance of the Chastisement of God
There is a world of difference between chastisement and punishment. Punishment is for the Saviour Who bore the guilt and penalty of our sin upon the Cross; chastisement is for every child of God who is made one with Jesus by faith. If the past with all its failures sometimes recoils and hits back at you, and there seems to be no escape from it, don’t say that is punishment. It isn’t punishment, it is chastisement that we might escape the condemnation of the world, that we might profit by it, chastised to be made tender and usable.
I would put in this word of warning, beware of allowing the chastening hand of our loving God to alienate you from Him, but rather let it cause you to lie down and rest in Him, knowing that whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth. I would rather be chastened for my sin now than meet God at the judgment seat concerning it. It was David who cried: “Let me fall into the hand of the Lord; for very great are His mercies: but let me not fall into the hand of man” (1 Chronicles 21:13).
Notice the precious language of Isaiah 54:10—“For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee.” He has entered into a covenant with us that is going to outlast every mountain and every hill. Perhaps we have been careless and apathetic and cold and brought suffering to others and to ourselves, but God has used the consequences of that like a furnace to consume our sin and drive us into the wounded side of Jesus. “If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea (trying, as it were, to make all that a gulf of separation between myself and my God); even there shall Thy hand lead me and Thy right had uphold me. If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me” (Psalm 139:8-11).
Through it all He has followed us to lead us back to Himself, and through all our wanderings He accomplishes His purpose in us of holiness and purity of heart.
Let me therefore bring you back to the empty net of last Sunday, not by way of discouragement, God forbid, but to ask you in the name of the Lord Jesus very humbly please would you identify yourself with it—or do you wish me to remain isolated with it? Would you take your share of that burden or would you leave it all to me? Not to make us indifferent, but perhaps to remind us of past failures, to remind us of the discipline of the government of God, to remind us of the tokens of His chastisement, but more still, to remind us of the promise of His blessing and of His unfailing love. For “no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby” (Hebrews 12:11).