“Yes, the stork in the heavens knows her appointed times, and the turtledove and crane and the swallow observe the time of their coming, but My people know not the judgment of the Lord.”
IN our text the Prophet makes use of the flight of migratory birds to teach a valuable lesson. He mentions the swallow, which is the most prominent among the summer visitors to our own country, but he also names the stork, the crane and the turtledove, all of them familiar instances of birds that came, at a certain season, to Palestine and, punctual to the hour, at given changes of the weather, winged their way back again to warmer climates. Too many careless observers, like the peasant of whom Wordsworth writes–
“A primrose by a river’s brim
A yellow primrose was to him
And it was nothing more,”
would have seen those birds and soon forgotten all about them. But the Prophet, observing the wisdom of these wanderers of the air, contrasts it with the folly of man who knows not “the judgment of the Lord,” and obeys not so readily the monitions of his God as the birds do the instinct by which He guides them to and fro. We shall mark these migratory birds and set the wisdom of their instinct in contrast with the folly of mankind.
- The first thing that strikes us is the fact that the stork, the swallow, the crane and the turtledove know WHEN TO COME AND GO.
So far as we know, no audible command is given to them. You and I might forget, in the beginning of summer, thatthen is the period when the swallow will put in an appearance in our land. And that towards autumn he must take himself away, across the purple sea, to the African strand, or wherever he can find a suitable climate. But these birds know when to come or go–they tell, by some mysterious means, exactly when to start on their long flight. They were never known to go too soon. They are never known to stay too late. The bulk of them depart at one period and the rest a few days later. If we are living in the suburbs, we hear a twittering congregation gathering around the gables of the houses and, in the evening we miss the swift-winged hawks who had, during the summer, found their evening meal among the dancing insects. Their shrill, joyous twittering is hushed, for they have perceived that the heavy dews of autumn and the long nights of winter are coming to strew the earth with fading flowers and falling leaves and, by-and-by, with frost and snow and, therefore, they have flown off to fairer lands where other summers await them! They will come back again in due time, true as the calendar. Whether we look for them, or not, they will be punctual to Nature’s appointment. As sure as the summer’s sun will be their return! They know, without any special instruction, when to come, and when to go.
It is worthy of observation that the young birds which have been born in this country and have never made the longjourney before, yet set forth with the older ones at the appointed time. They are novices in the art of travelling, yet theytry their callow wings and away they fly to the far-off land where the sun shines as it does not in this higher latitude. I wish that our young people were all as wise as the young swallows are–that they knew their appointed time, that they understood that there is no period in life which has so much of hopefulness about it as the period of childhood and youth–that it is the best time in which to seek the Savior, for it has a special promise attached to it. “Those that seek Me early shall find Me.” I would that they could hear the Lord Jesus Christ’s peculiarly sweet and tender message concerning them–“Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come unto Me: for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Yet, alas, young storks, swallows, cranes and turtledoves fly at the appointed season–but many young men and maidens delay and waste the joyous hours of the morning of their lives in the ways of sin and folly! Yes, they waste the hours which, if consecrated to Christ and to His service, would have brought them a rich return in this life and, in the life to come, would have tended to increase and intensify their everlasting happiness.
Further, the parent birds, also, go their way at the right time. They can, and doubtless do, help to guide the young.They may have made that journey but once before, but they know all about it–they remember how long and how weary a way it was to them, but when the hour has struck, away they go, attended by their little ones! I would that all you who are parents among mankind were as wise as these parent fowls of the air. You have your children around you, but where are you leading them? Your example, if not your precept, is guiding them somewhere–you are influencing them for good or evil. You cannot help doing so. I think you would hardly wish to help it, for a child of yours, over whom you had no influence whatever, would be a strange occupant of your home! Oh, that you would be as wise as these migratory birds! May God’s own wisdom make you so, that your own flight to Heaven may be an impulse to your child to take flight there, also! May your faith help his faith! May your holiness check him from sin! May your consecration to God, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, induce him to give his heart to God while he is yet young!
I speak to you who are in middle life and remind you that these birds which have come to the prime of their days, take their flight at the appointed time–and if ever there is a set time for turning unto God, with you who have come so far on life’s journey without seeking the Lord, it surely is now! You who have reached the full strength of your manhood and have your households about you and yet are not saved, be not like the rich man whom God called a fool because he had much of this world’s goods stored up and yet had not thought of making provision for his soul! Do not set your affections upon those well-feathered nests which you are so soon to leave, but seek an enduring portion in that better land where joy maintains eternal Spring! Stretch your wings for the flight Christ-ward and heavenward, and may you have the happiness of seeing your sons and daughters following in the same blessed track!
Some of the migratory birds are growing old. Their wings are somewhat worn and their flight is a very weary one. Life, to them, has lost its early brilliance, yet, when the time comes, they too, the veterans of the sea passage, are measuring the leagues of ocean waves when the waters are calm, or in times of storm when favoring gales may better serve their purpose. These birds add experience to instinct and rightly follow the guidance of Nature–yet there are old men and old women who are not as wise as the old swallows are! They linger in the plains of sin though the harvest is past and the summer is ended–and the winter is coming fast upon them. I see the first flakes of snow on their frost-crowned heads. Already their leaf begins to wither. The light of their day is darkening, the flower of their beauty fading and the shadows of their weakness lengthening. What? Not away yet, old graybeard? Not away yet, when the killing frost is already upon you? Stretch your soul’s wings at once! ‘Tis late, 'tis very late! The sere leaf of autumn warns you. The white rime of the early frost chides you! Oh, that you would know the seasons and the judgments of God, even as the birds of the air do, and that you would seek Him, now, before it be too late! It is the eleventh hour with you, Man! You have reached your three-score years and ten, yet you are unsaved! May Divine Grace visit you and make you wise–and if it does, you will not sleep till you have found the Savior, lest your couch should become your tomb! You will not dare to go into another week of work-days until you have made this first day of the week the appointed Sabbath, a day of rest unto your soul in the bosom of your Savior!
Observe well that these birds–the young, the parents and the older birds, all go at the right time. Perhaps thebright days linger a while–our autumns sometimes are protracted and tempting. When the winter months have come, we may have some almost summer days in this changeful climate of ours, but no bright second-summer tempts the swallow to linger! That interesting bird may have an eye for fair scenes and lovely views and, I think wherever he may fly, he will see no fairer land than this, and no greener dells and fresher woodlands than those that adorn our happy isle. Yet he lingers not for them. Though it is Africa’s brown unattractive sand that calls him, on he goes, for he must go or die! His food will fail him here, the damp will be deadly to him–so away he must go. He has built his nest and birds love their nests as we love our homes. He has formed associations and acquaintances, it may be, for birds have friendships. But the time has come when, with his companions, or without them, he must without fail proceed on his long voyage to the sunny shore! He performs his predestined journey at the ordained time.
And let nothing tempt anyone to linger in love of sin and love of this world when he ought to be seeking those things which are above! Let not the world’s pleasures, nor its gains, nor its most tender associations beguile you. You, O Man, like the swallow, must go or die! It is with you as it was with Lot in Sodom–the city of your habitation is soon to be destroyed–this world, in a little while, must meet destruction. Up, and away! The fiery hail is ready to descend! The angel of God comes to warn you, saying, “Escape for your life; look not behind you, neither stay you in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed.” So, let nothing hinder you, but speed on till you reach God, your Father, and Christ, your Brother, and are washed in His precious blood and made meet to dwell with Him in Heaven forever!
But alas, alas, it is still true that men “know not the judgment of the Lord.” They know not, as the birds do, their “appointed times.” There have been, with some of you, times of very gracious visitation–when your heart has been made soft and impressible. I beseech you, “know” that time and avail yourself of it! You know that the preacher’s word is not always with equal power. Even the Inspired Word of God has not always the same effect when it is read. Therefore, cherish every tender emotion that you feel. You know what was said to David, “And let it be, when you hear the sound of a going in the tops of the mulberry trees, that then you shall bestir yourself: for then shall the Lord go out before you.” So, when there is a movement within the spirit. When there is a revival in the Church. When there are manifest tokens of earnestness in the assembly, then, I pray you, know your appointed time and “bestir yourself.”
There are other times, also, which should not be forgotten. For instance, times of sickness. Have you been laid aside lately and are you able again to come out of doors? This is a loud call to you, an admonition, a very kind and tender one, yet one that ought to say to you, “Prepare to meet your God.” If sicknesses do not soften, they harden. If we get no good from our chastisements, we are sure to get harm from them. So, my afflicted but restored Friend, know your time, recognize that you have been smitten by your God and turn not away from the hand that smites you! Sometimes the visitation comes in the form of death. Possibly death has come into your home and carried off your child. O mother, follow your dear babe to the skies! Or, is it your husband who has been called away? Then, O widow, take your Maker for your Husband! Is it your Christian father who has been taken from you and yet you, his child, are still unsaved? Your father beckons to you from the skies and bids you seek his Savior! Is it your brother who is gone? It might have been yourself, so let the tolling of the knell for him have a message for you–let it say to you, “Consider your ways, for your soul shall soon be required of you.” Make this period, when God is summoning others to Himself, to be the time when you, also, take flight to the better land–I mean not Heaven, but I mean the heart of Christ–that is the true Heaven of this life, and makes this life to be the foretaste of the unending life that is yet to come!
It is very sad that seasons like these, of which I have been speaking, are often the very times when people become more hardened than before. Death itself may grow so familiar that it loses all its impressiveness. The grave digger is often the last man to be affected by the thought of dying. It must have been a grim spectacle when, during the French Revolution, a certain cemetery was leveled and turned into a saloon–and there, with the tombstones still in sight, they danced and sang a song in which part of the refrain was, “We dance among the tombs.” Their hair was made up in the same way as those had their hair combed who were prepared for execution by the guillotine–and no one was admitted to the dance unless he or she had lost a father, or brother, or some other relative by the guillotine! And knowing that they, themselves, would, in all probability, die in the same terrible fashion, they gathered in the place of the graves and whirled in the merry dance among the tombs! It was a strange sight. Surely, none would have dared to act like that had they not been carried away by the madness of that awful period. Literally, of course, we do not act as they did, but, spiritually, this is just what many are doing–they are dancing and singing among the tombs! In utter carelessness and wantonness of spirit they dance within the very jaws of death and, unless God shall cure their madness and teach them wisdom, even as He has taught the birds of Heaven–they will dance themselves into Hell!
II. But, next, it is very remarkable–indeed, it is one of the wonders of Nature that THEY KNOW WHERE TO GO.
Many of them–those newly-hatched birds–have never seen the land towards which they speed. Yet they go there and go to the very place where their parents went before them! They have never seen that sunny shore, yet onward they fly towards it, straight to the mark as if they were arrows shot from a bow! They have no swift-winged messenger to proclaim the time of going and to describe the country so temptingly as to induce them to go, but feeling the motion of a mysterious impulse within them, they fly at the appointed time to the far-off land where they may dwell, through the winter, in a more genial climate. Why do they go south? Why don’t they fly north, east, or west? If we were left to seek other shores and we knew nothing of geography, we could not find a suitable place. But these birds, untaught, find the exact spot where it is best for them to spend the many months until they can return to this more northerly land!
The pity concerning poor foolish man is that by nature, he does not know where to go. When our Lord Jesus Christsaid to His disciples, “Where I go you know, and the way you know,” Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we know not where You go, and how can we know the way?” The cry of many aroused souls is, “Where shall we go? We know not the way.” Men want happiness, where shall they go for it? If the swallow were to fly straight for the north pole in the hope of finding a genial climate, he would not be more foolish than most men are in their supposed pursuit of happiness! Some fly to unchastity and lasciviousness and, in this way both wreck their bodies and damn their souls! Some fly to moneygrubbing, raking up their gold and silver till they fancy that they are wealthy, whereas, often the more a man has of these things the more he craves and it is a poor thing that makes us want more than we have any need of. Some fancy that they shall find pleasure in the approbation of their fellow men, but before long they discover that the breath of man’s nostrils can never fill an immortal soul.
We need something better than the blasts of fame’s trumpet to satisfy the spirit which is to live forever and ever–in raptures or in woe. Some fly to strong drink, some to one thing and some to another, all alike fools! There is but one kind of true happiness and only one place where it can be found. Solid satisfaction can only come from reconciliation to God and that reconciliation can only come to us through Jesus Christ, His Son! Man is never right till he is right with God. And never happy till he is happy in the happy God. Man needs peace and rest–every man needs these blessings. In these feverish days, rest is the great need of the age and, to find it, man sometimes flies to superstition and sometimes to unbelief. He must be quiet, he says, for there are thoughts that vex and perturb his spirit. And Jesus stands and says again, as He said of old, “Come unto Me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” But, to a sadly terrible extent, man heeds not His gracious invitation and flies anywhere but to the true place of rest!
When man is spiritually awakened, he sees that he needs pardon. And pardon is to be obtained nowhere but in the precious blood that flowed from the wounds of the crucified Son of God! Yet many men try to get it by almsgiving, penances and outward reformations–they will even look to priestly lips for absolution, though none can forgive sins but God! They fly here and there–anywhere except to God and to the one Mediator between God and man, the Man, Christ Jesus! O men, as I look upon you, I see the contrast between you and the stork, and the turtledove, and the crane, and the swallow, for, when the time comes for these birds to fly, they stretch their wings and away they go as though they could even see the far-off land! They never stop until they have reached the goal for which they started. But you fly here, there, anywhere–and nowhere, in the long run, and you drop down, faint and weary–drop, ah, where?–but into the devouring jaws of the old dragon who has long sought your destruction and who will achieve it unless you listen to the voice of wisdom which said, “turn you, turn you from your evil ways; for why will you die?” “Seek you the Lord while He may be found, call you upon Him while He is near: let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.”
II. Thirdly, dear Friends, these migratory birds not only know the time for them to come or go, and the place to which they should go, but, BY SOME STRANGE INSTINCT, THEY ALSO KNOW THE WAY.
There is no road that they can follow. Our swallows, I suppose, fly across the English Channel–sometimes across France and Spain–but they are often met with far, far out at sea and have been known to rest upon the rigging, the masts, and even the decks of vessels when they have grown weary. Their flights are very long and rapid, but they can have no landmarks. They usually fly far across the sea, yet they never miss their way and, in due time, they reach their desired end. No convoy is by their side, no wings of angels are heard rustling around them as they speed upon their way. There may be no favoring wind, but if it should be contrary to them, they fly against it. They must reach the sunnier climate, or die in the attempt and, therefore, though the wind should, at times, keep them back, and impede their flight, yet onward they go!
Now, there are many, many men who can say with the Apostle I quoted before, “Lord, we know not where You go, and how can we know the way?” They say this concerning the way to salvation, the way to safety, the way to Heaven. They do not know the way. Some of you who have heard the Gospel preached for years do not know the way. That is not through our lack of plain speaking, nor through our lack of reiterating–
“The old, old story,
Of Jesus and His love.”
I always feel that I have not done my duty as a preacher of the Gospel if I go out of this pulpit without having clearly set before sinners the way of salvation. I sometimes think that you have so often and so long heard me tell this story that you will get weary of it, but I cannot help it if you do. I had better weary you than in any way be false to my charge. Yet, with all this telling over and over, and over again the simple message of, “Believe, and live,” though the outward ears hear it and the mind catches some idea of it, yet the soul embraces it not.
Let me tell it to you yet once more. The way for a soul to fly to the place of safety lies in this direction alone–God’s only-begotten and well-beloved Son, who is Himself “very God of very God,” came down from Heaven and became Man. He lived upon this earth a life of perfect obedience to His Father’s Law, and a life of holy service on behalf of sinful men. On the Cross of Calvary, the sin of all those who will ever trust in Him were laid upon Him and, on the accursed tree, He endured all that they ought to have suffered for their sins. God bruised Christ, His own Son, in the place of as many sinners as believe on Him. God was perfectly just in acting thus. The payment of our enormous debt of guilt was demanded–and Christ paid it in full. So, all who trust in Jesus may rest assured that their sin was laid upon Christ, put away by Christ and so completely blotted out that it has ceased to be! We are accounted just through our faith in Jesus Christ, the great Sin-Bearer. “The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” “He has made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” The way of safety, then, is the way of Substitution, the way of Atonement, the way of Jesus Christ’s blood! And the way to travel in that road is by simply trusting–believing with the heart in Jesus Christ, relying upon Him, depending upon Him, leaning on Him, resting on Him, believing His Word–and accepting Him to be to us what God has set Him forth to be to the trusting sons and daughters of men!
IV. My last remark about these migratory birds the stork, the turtledove, the crane and the swallow is that they not only know the time for their flight and the place they need to reach, and the way they have to go, but THEY SHOW THEIR WISDOM BY ACTUALLY GOING TO THE SUNNY LAND.
It would not profit them, in the least, to know when to go if they did not really go at the appointed time. It would not serve them an atom to know where to go, if they did not go–nor to know how to go if they still loitered here. But the wisdom of these fowls of the air is proved by the fact that they do go. They practice what they know. They yield to the instinct which guides them, the impulse which moves them! But, alas, in contrast with these birds, sinners are often very foolish. They have long heard the Gospel, but they have not yet obeyed it. They have never practiced what they know, atleast in a sense. There are many who profess to believe all that we preach, who prove, by their actions, that they have never really received our message. How foolish it is to say that they believe there is a Hell and yet seek not to escape from it–to talk of believing that there is a Heaven and yet never begin in the way that leads to it–and to pretend to believe in the only Savior of sinners and yet really not to trust in Him!
Then there are many who know their danger, yet do not escape from it. They are fully aware of the terrible placewhere their sin is carrying them. They are quite conscious that they are without hope of entering Heaven and that, when they die, there will be nothing for them but “the blackness of darkness forever.” Yet all this knowledge is of no avail to them, for they do not seek to escape from their impending doom! Where shall I find language strong enough to describe such folly as this? There are some who even say, as that son said to his father, “I go, Sir,” yet they do not go. They vow yet break their vow again and again. They are at times moved, but it is only with temporary regrets, for they turn again to the sin they said they had left. Alas! Alas! Alas! Yet these people are not idiots–they are not fools in other matters. See them at their business–they are sharp enough there. They want to see the latest telegram, for it may affect the stocks and shares in which they are so deeply interested. They are very anxious to be on time about their temporal affairs. They are punctual in their payments and they are glad to be equally prompt in their receipts.
They look after their own interests in everything except the greatest and most important of them all! They carefully examine the title-deeds relating to their estates. They will not set their signature to any document till they have thoroughly understood it and seen that it is all right. They make everything as secure as they can except their immortal souls! To take care of the garment, but to neglect the body it covers, is folly! To give all our time to our houses and lands, to our money and our worldly estate–and to leave our soul to be lost–is the most supreme folly of which we can be capable! I know not what to say to those who know what they should be, what they should do–and yet hesitate, debate and delay to do it! Is there such folly anywhere else under Heaven? The birds of the air and the beasts of the field are not so stupid as that! Surely the very stones in our streets have as much reason in them as those men have who know that there is a Savior for sinners and who yet lose Him by neglecting to trust in Him! Vain is it for me to appeal to you! Instead of doing so, I make my appeal to God! Holy Spirit, save these fools from themselves and from their sins, and lead them to faith in Christ, the only Savior! O fools, and slow of heart to believe, I call Heaven and earth to witness that I have warned you of the consequences of your fatal folly! If you will perish in your sins, remember that I have warned you–not with such a voice as I would use if I had it, nor in such language as I would wish to speak if it were possible–but using the best I have, that which my heart prompts me to use!
“Why will you die?” Why will you be lost to all eternity? You must live forever, for you are immortal! God has made you so and He will never let your soul die. Then, will you deliberately choose to make that endless life of yours to be forever wretched, forever without hope? You do not mean to do so! I cannot think that you are so insane as that! You desire to have peace here and hereafter? Then seek the Savior this very hour! None are as happy as true Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. Would you have joy forever? Then trust in Him! But if you do not, no joy can ever be yours. The inexorable decree of God concerning Heaven is, “There shall in no wise enter into it anything that defiles, neither whatever works abomination, or makes a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.” Therefore, if your names are not in that Book–that is to say, if you believe not in Jesus Christ as your Savior, if you are not trusting in the blood of the Lamb–you will go to that dread place where hope can never dawn–but where the midnight despair shall darken over the lost souls that will be imprisoned there forever and forevermore!