Amongst the arguments used by Samuel to discourage the people of Israel from desiring a king, he said, "He will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your olive yards, even the best of them." We have in the verses before us a notable example of the truth of this forecast, understanding covetousness in a bad sense.
I. DESIRE, IN THE ABSTRACT, IS NOT COVETOUSNESS.
1. It is the principle of exchanges.
(1) If persons had no desire to possess anything beyond what they have acquired, there would be no motive to trade. Of the virtuous woman it is said, "She considereth a field and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard" (Proverbs 31:16).
(2) All commerce is founded upon the desire to make exchanges.
2. But commerce is fruitful in blessings.
(1) There are evils connected with trading, viz., where dishonest practices come into it. But these are intrusions; and they are denounced as "illegitimate" and "uncommercial."
(2) Genuine commerce gives profitable employment to thought and labour.
(3) It brings the countries and peoples of the wide world into correspondence. Thereby it enlarges our knowledge of those countries, their peoples and products, and other. wise stimulates science.
(4) It encourages philanthropy. Relief is afforded for distresses through famines, floods, fires, earthquakes; and religious missions are organized.
3. Desire, well directed, should be encouraged.
(1) To be absolutely without desire for things evil would be a happy state. Therefore this state should be earnestly desired.
(2) There is also the positive desire to be Christ like. This can scarcely be too vehement.
(3) Ahab does not seem to have signalized himself in either of these directions.
II. ILLICIT DESIRE IS COVETOUSNESS.
1. We should not desire what God has forbidden.
(1) Herein Ahab was wrong in desiring the vineyard of Naboth. It was the "inheritance of his fathers," transmitted in the family of Naboth, from the days of Joshua, and it would have been unlawful for him to part with it (Leviticus 25:23; Numbers 36:7).
(2) Ahab was wrong in tempting Naboth to trangress the commandment of the Lord. He should never have encouraged a desire, the gratification of which would involve such a consequence.
(3) It was a pious act in Naboth, who, doubtless in things lawful would be pleased to gratify the king, to have indignantly refused to gratify him here. "The Lord forbid it me that I should give the inheritance of my fathers unto thee." He had his tenure from the Lord. He looked upon his earthly inheritance as a pledge of a heavenly.
2. This rule requires the study of God's word.
(1) It is of the utmost moment to us to be acquainted with the will of God. This he has revealed in the Scriptures.
(2) In cases of transgression we cannot plead ignorance when we have the Bible in our hands. Neither can we shift now our responsibility on to our teachers.
(3) Do we make proper use of our Bibles? Do we study them? Do we read them prayerfully? We must not sell the moral inheritance we have received from the past.
III. INORDINATE DESIRE IS COVETOUSNESS. Some things are lawful without limit. Such are the direct claims of God.
(1) The love of God. We may love Him with all our heart. We cannot love Him too much, or too much desire His love.
(2) The service of God. This, indeed, is another form of love; for love expresses itself in service (John 14:15, 23; Romans 13:10; Galatians 5:14; 1 John 5:3).
(3) The knowledge of God. To love and serve God perfectly we must have a perfect knowledge of Him according to our capacity. We cannot too ardently desire this knowledge.
(4) If Ahab had loved, served, and known God with perfect desire, he would have found such satisfaction as to have rendered it impossible for him to have sulked as he did because he could not obtain Naboth's vineyard. When God is absent there is a restless void; nothing can satisfy an unholy spirit.
2. Other things are lawful in measure.
(1) Otherwise they would interfere with the direct claims of God. The creature must not be put into competition with the Creator. "Thou shalt have none other gods beside me."
(2) Desire for sensible and temporal things must not displace the desire for things spiritual and eternal. To love the inferior preferably to the superior is to deprave the affections.
(3) It would have been lawful for Ahab to have purchased a lease of the vineyard of Naboth at a fair price, leaving it in the power of Naboth to have redeemed it; and for it to revert to Naboth or his heirs in the jubilee (Leviticus 25:23-28). But this desire to possess it, even under these conditions, could not be justified if a refusal should lead him to go home "heavy and displeased" and sicken with chagrin. Ahab's discontent brought its own punishment. He was a king, yet discontented. Discontent is a disease of the soul rather than of the circumstances. - J.A.M.
And Ahab came into his house heavy and displeased.
In other and less dignified words, Ahab, when he could not get his own way, went to bed in a sulk. I take it that all those who have tried even to be close students of human nature are agreed that life as a rule suffers most, not from the heroic sin or from the deep passion, but from. little mean and contemptible sins. These sins are like the grit in the eye — they incense and inflame until it happens that a great and noble faculty can be used no more. And I am going to suggest to this audience that the harmony of life, whether it be of the family life or of the social life of any people, suffers most from two classes of people — the cross-grained man and the shrew. These people are ready, as you know, to take umbrage at the faintest slight, even of a fancied kind, to indulge ill-humour over something that was never intended to be even a contradiction of their views; and when not venting their venom and their spite publicly, they are commonly to be found grumbling in a corner; and if not openly growling, then they are secretly sulking and nourishing their temper. Now, will you bear with me while I say a word about the description itself, because there is a lesson which I think we might learn even from the word. The word "temper," as you know, is one of the English words which have gradually come to have a bad sense. It meant in its original "to moderate or to modify what was unduly harsh or violent," and in that sense, of course, the word has been frequently used. I found, for instance, a quotation out of one of the early English poets, in which he said that the function of the woman was to temper man — that is, not to put him into a temper, but to modify his naturally harsh, sour, and severe disposition — a function that everybody here will agree woman, as a rule, discharges. The word temper, indeed, is used very commonly for either of two purposes; either to describe a calm, serene, and gracious nature, or else to describe a hasty, fiery, and ill-conditioned nature. But when my dictionary was consulted it told me this: that the good use of the word has, in process of years, become obsolete, and that if the word temper is now used by itself, it can always be trusted to have the bad significance. So that I call you to witness it comes to this: that if you want to speak of good temper you must call it good; but if you want to speak of bad temper you can simply describe it as temper, and everybody will know what you mean. I want to ask you that you will distinguish it from what we call passion. Passion, it is quite true, is often guilty of great and terrible crimes, crimes which arise from the fact that a great quality has become the master instead of being the servant of man. But in bad temper there is nothing so great or dignified or strong as passion. Temper thrives on trivialities. There is no detail so silly; no pretext so trumpery, but it will give the reins to the man of temper. Passion is the sublime; temper is really ridiculous save only for this, that the things it does and the misery it causes would turn all our laughter into tears. To take — for I am anxious that you should continue your analysis — another distinction that will occur to you between the two. Passion is always occasional, it is volcanic, it is soon over. It is like the thunderstorm. It bursts and breaks; then the sky clears blue and genial and warm. But it is always the tendency of temper to be chronic and normal, and it corresponds to what we constantly describe as a certain cross-grained and ill-conditioned nature. Yes, passion is volcanic, but passion knows how to forgive and to forget. But temper is not like that. It keeps all its bitterness within. It nourishes its grudges, it cherishes its slights, it broods over its fancied wrongs. I was wondering how I could best illustrate this part of what I am trying to say, and a comparison occurred to me between two kings of your English history — the one whom I always think of as one of the greatest kings who ever wore the British crown, the first Edward, a man of passion, deeply beloved, and even adored by his people; the man of the passionate pilgrimage, which was to be the evidence of his grief for his wife, to whom Charing Cross is the monument even to-night — a man of volcanic humour, with floods of tears for the evil deeds his passion wrought, and of whom Mr. J. R. Green tells the thrilling and touching story, how he summoned his subjects to Westminster Hall, and when he faced them could not speak to them, but simply buried his face in his hands and burst into tears before them all, and then asked forgiveness for wrongs that he had done. That was the passionate man. I contrast with him the king of temper, John, who never rose to a single great thought or a single great deed, but who after all won the loathing and contempt of his subjects, because Dante's hazy smoke was always in his heart — morbid, sullen, spiteful, malicious. And now that brings me very naturally to the discussion of the text which I have taken, and the narrative to which it refers, a quotation that is familiar to you all. You know that it introduces us to one of the most cold-blooded and gruesome crimes of which history contains any record. The real instigator of that crime, and the executor of the deed was Jezebel. But terrible as Jezebel's temper is represented here, I venture to say that to every self-respecting mind the character of Ahab is more loathsome and more contemptible. Jezebel did the thing. Ahab was only the weak confederate of his unscrupulous and bold wife, with her heart of marble. And yet think of it, analyse the scene. Does it not remain, as I say, that Jezebel with all her crimes and her blood-stained hands could even extort the measure of admiration when you consider her spirit, her intrepidity, and her initiative, and realise that if these qualities had been devoted to something worthy of them, she would have been a great woman. But about Ahab there is nothing great; there is everything that is contemptible — nothing more heroic than a fit of temper. I have no doubt that his servants went away and said it was an attack of the liver, and that he would shortly be all right. But Jezebel knew him better. She knew that it was black venom, and spite, and malice, and that if he was to get better and recover these must have their vent. And so she did what he wanted to do, but hadn't the courage to do. That is your whole story in a nutshell. "And what is its moral?" you say. "It is so horrible it has no moral for us." I am not so sure of that. Its moral is this, I take it, that to a man thus evilly conditioned, the natural disposition is to every, sorry and cruel suggestion that may come to him from any quarter. For there he is naturally disposed to think the worst of people and to do them ill. Ah, yes; and if it had not ended except in evil word it had been bad enough, for if I may in an aside I would say this: temper has always found its readiest weapon in the tongue, and who in this building can estimate the evil and the injury that has been done when the tongue has lain at the disposition of temper. Ah, but is it not true to say that it is possible for you and me, while we analyse the temper and desire that God's love will soften and sweeten the heart — is it not possible, for us to feel some genuine sorrow for them? For, after all, remember that nobody else is made quite so unhappy and so miserable as they make themselves. There they are; they are unwelcome guests at every festival, and I fancy that at last they come to know that people anticipate their advent with apprehension and look upon their backs with relief. They are the frost on every budding happiness, the skeleton that sits at every feast. The cross-grained man and the common scold or shrew isolate themselves from humanity, cut themselves off from the genial and generous debt of life. Their heart becomes like the North Pole — absolutely locked in impenetrable ice. "And is there no cure?" Oh yes, there is something. The mind that was in Christ Jesus, can it be communicated, or can it not? Is Christianity true when it says: "He will give you His Spirit, He will make you like Himself"? Is it true or is it not? Some of you here to-night, are you doomed and destined to bear to your grave this burden of which I have been speaking, or is there One whose hands can unloose the thongs and set you free? I know that I am right in what I say. Why, there are friends known to you, and to dwell in their company is gradually to feel dissolve and decay within you your bitter thoughts, and your heart come cordially into sympathy with their genial and generous spirit. That is a great thing; but, oh, men and women, to company with Jesus Christ, to live in His presence, beneath His redeeming touch and influence, that is, indeed, to say good-bye to the bitterness of the heart, that is to receive His sweetness into this bitter-thoughted mind and soul, that is to be mellowed for His harvesting, made ripe and gracious fruit for His hands to gather. That is my gospel Jesus Christ can cure.