There is an absurdity sin. In the fact of repentance, one element which must concern us is a realization that our sin is absurd. Sibbes draws this out by demonstrating that the things which had become idolatrous snares to Israel were also things which could not provide succor. We rely upon solutions which simply do not work.
Doct. How these outward things cannot help us.
How prone soever we are to rely upon them, they are in effect nothing. They cannot help us, and so are not to be relied upon. ‘Asshur shall not save us.’ Indeed it will not, it cannot. These things cannot aid us at our most need. So that that which we most pitch upon, fails us when we should especially have help. Some present vanishing supply they yield, but little to purpose. They have not that in them which should support the soul at a strait, or great pinch, as we say.
Having made the accusation: these things cannot help us, Sibbes now seeks to prove-up his point: They are vanity.
Reason. The reason is largely given by Solomon in the whole book of Ecclesiastes, ‘All is vanity and vexation of spirit,’ Eccles. 1:14.
He is going to use the phrase “to support the soul.” His point is that riches (he will give that as a particular example) cannot be used to buy food. Of course it can. But riches are of limited value. We sinfully place a reliance upon the creature which it cannot bear:
There is a vanity in all the creatures, being empty and not able to support the soul. They are vain in their continuance, and empty in regard of their strength. They are gone when we have need of them.
Riches, as the wise man saith, are gone, and have wings to fly away, in our most need, Prov. 23:5. So friends are fugitive good things, being like to the brooks mentioned in Job, 6:15: which when in summer there is need of, then they are dried up, and yet run amain in winter, when there is no need of them.
He is trying to explain the way in which money or friends are of limited use:
So, earthly supports, when there is no need of them, then they are at hand; but when we have most need of them, are gone. ‘They are broken cisterns,’ as the prophet calls them, Jer. 2:13. Cisterns, that is, they have a limited capacity.
He picks up on the image of a cistern from Jeremiah and develops it as follows:
A cistern is not a spring.
A cistern, even a broken cistern, is not wholly lacking in use; but it is nothing compared to a spring. The cistern will soon run dry; the spring will not.
So all their support, at the best, is but a bounded and a mixed sufficiency; and that also which will quickly fail: like water in a cistern, which if it be not fed with a continual spring, fails or putrefies presently.
Likewise these outward things are not sufficient for the grievance; for being limited and bounded, the grievance will be above the strength of the creature; which though sometime it be present and do not fail, yet the trouble is such, that it is above the strength of the creature to help. So that for these and the like respects, there is no sufficiency, nor help to be expected from the creature.
He has stated his proposition with some emphasis, but it still may be unclear. In particular way is Assyria, the most power country in the world at that time, insufficient?
‘Asshur shall not save us.’ He is not a sufficient ground of trust. Why?
1. He is but a creature.
2. He is an enemy.
3. He is an idolater.
So that, take him in all these three relations, he is not to be trusted.
What are the limitations of being a creature?
1. He is a creature. What is a creature? Nothing, as it were. Saith the prophet, ‘All creatures before him are as nothing, and as a very little thing.’ And what it is, when he pleaseth, he can dissolve it into nothing, turn it into dust. Man’s breath is in his nostrils, Isa. 2:22. ‘All flesh is grass, and all his glory as the flower of grass,’ Ps. 103:15.
Creatures have finite duration: they can die. Creatures are dependent upon the sufferance of God to even exist. Therefore, if you trust in the creature, it might fail you. Sibbes puts this nicely:
If a man trust the creature, he may outlive his trust.
The repeated use of “trust” is well done. The first use is as a verb; the second a noun indicating the state of the verb in action.
His prop may be taken from him, and down he falls.
The abstract statement about trust becomes a comic, concrete image of the clown falling which the prop against he leans is moved.
He then moves to another trouble with creature: to trust it is to incur a curse:
Asshur must not be trusted, therefore, as a creature, nor as a man, for that brings us within the curse. Thus saith the Lord, ‘Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm,’ &c., Jer. 17:5. So trusting in the creature not only deceives us, but brings us within the curse. In that respect, Asshur must not be trusted.
The connection made between Hosea and Jeremiah is not the sort of connection which will appear in margin notes or word studies. It is a connection made from countless hours of study and meditation such that Sibbes can see conceptual ties between disparate passages.
2. But Asshur likewise was an enemy, and a secret enemy. For howsoever the ten tribes unto whom Hosea prophesied were great idolaters, yet they were somewhat better than Asshur, who was without the pale of the church, and a wholly corrupted church. Therefore, they were enemies to the ten tribes, and, amongst other reasons, because they were not so bad as they, nor deeply enough dyed with idolatry.
Before we consider the “present time” examples which Sibbes offers is perhaps wise to consider the ways in which we personally have made reliance upon an enemy. At the time of Sibbes’ writing it must be understood what a grave danger rested in religious opinions. There would be repeated wars involving England which concerned the question of what religious practice would be permitted in England. There would be attempts by the house of Stewart to forcibly impose Roman Catholicism upon England. People were going to die over this question.
Many think they may comply with popery in some few things, to gain their love, and that there may be joining with them in this and that; but do we think that they will ever trust us for all this? No; they will alway hate us, till we be as bad as they, and then they will despise us, and secure themselves of us. Therefore, there is no trusting of papists, as papists; not only creatures, but as false, and as enemies.
He then personalizes this principle: In personal relationships, the wicked will seek to first corrupt the morals of the other. “Bad company corrupts good morals.” 1 Cor. 15:33.
For this is the nature of wicked men. They will never trust better than themselves, till they become as bad as they are, after which they despise them. Say they, Now we may trust such and such a one; he is as bad as we, becom’d one of us.
But the one who willing corrupts is not one whom you can trust for constancy:
Which is the reason why some of a naughty disposition take away the chastity and virginity of men’s consciences, making them take this and that evil course, and then they think they have such safe, being as bad as themselves. Wherein they deal as Ahithophel’s politic, devilish counsel was, that Absalom should do that which was naught, and then he should be sure that David and he should never agree after that, 2 Sam. 16:21; and that then by this discovery the wicked Jews, set on mischief, might secure themselves of Absalom. So they, now that they join with us, God will forsake them; we shall have them our instruments for anything. First, they would have the ten tribes as bad as they, and then give them the slip whensoever they trusted them.
He hears so the proper limits which the Christian can have with others. We cannot live in such a way as to have no “commerce and traffic” with such people “since then you would need to go out of the world.” (1 Cor. 5:10). But we cannot place that ultimate trust upon them:
3. Again, neither were they to be trusted as idolaters, to have league and society with them. There may be some commerce and traffic with them, but amity and trust, none. Asshur and Egypt were horrible idolaters, and therefore not to be trusted in that respect. As we see the prophet in this case reproved good Jehoshaphat, when he had joined with wicked Ahab, king of the ten tribes, ‘Shouldst thou help the ungodly, and love them that hate the Lord? therefore wrath is upon thee from before the Lord,’ 2 Chron. 19:2. So we see it is a dangerous thing to be in league with idolaters, even such as the ten tribes were, who had some religion amongst them. This good king was chidden for it.