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Bitter Things!

Arthur Pink, 1952

"Woe unto those who call evil good, and good evil . . . who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!" Isaiah 5:20

Deplorable indeed is the case of those who are incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, who confound objects so radically dissimilar. Yet such by nature is the sad case with all of us. Our understanding is darkened, so that we are unable to perceive the real nature of things. Our wicked hearts deceive us into imagining that profitable exercises are a waste of time, and that pursuits which end in misery are pleasant. Instead of calling the Sabbath a delight (Isaiah 58:13), it is a weariness to the ungodly (Amos 8:5).

They spend their strength for that which is not bread, and their labor for that which does not satisfy (Isaiah 55:2). They mistake licentiousness for liberty, and the light yoke of Christ for a heavy burden. True wisdom is regarded as folly; and her ways (which are peaceful) are regarded as paths to be shunned. Thus do they befool and cheat their own souls. Instead of making God their chief good, He is abhorred, and Satan, their worst enemy, is served.

"And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigor: and they made their lives bitter with hard bondage " (Exodus 1:13, 14). The curse which the fall has called down upon man is a multiple one. It has not only alienated him from God, slain his spiritual life, and polluted his entire being, but it has also brought him into abject subjection to sin and Satan.

Solemnly and graphically is this aspect of his misery depicted in Exodus 1. Pharaoh, who was a type of the devil, was a most cruel tyrant over those who were in his power. He loaded them with intolerable burdens and treated them in a barbarous manner. He heaped one job upon another, and set over them cruel taskmasters, who beat them mercilessly when they relaxed. Thus, the Hebrews had no ease of body and no comfort of mind.

Just so, my reader, is how Satan treats his captives, forcing them to employ their strength and talents in his hard service. For the most part, they realize it not, for sin so completely infatuates its victims as to make them in love with their bonds and unconscious of their burdens! Nevertheless, they have been taken captive by the devil at his will (2 Timothy 2:26) and are "serving divers lusts" (Titus 3:3).

"With bitter herbs shall they eat it" (Exodus 12:8). The reference is to the paschal lamb, the blood of which provided shelter from the angel of death and issued in their deliverance from their serfdom under Pharaoh. Thus, that lamb was a notable type of Christ and His glorious redemption . It is not sufficiently realized that "redemption" presupposes bondage, that it is the freeing of sin's captives, the delivering of the devil's bound prisoners (Isaiah 61:1; Zechariah 9:11). "If the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed" (John 8:36). Redemption, then, is the emancipating of Satan's serfs, by the mighty power of God, on the ground of sin-atoning blood. Ever after, the children of Israel were annually to celebrate that deliverance from Egyptian slavery by eating a lamb with bitter herbs—the bitter herbs being designed to be a perpetual reminder of their former bitter bondage.

In their spiritual application unto Christians, those bitter herbs are an emblem of that godly sorrow and mortification of the flesh which are ever to accompany the exercise of a living faith in the Lord Jesus. We cannot have real fellowship with the sufferings of Christ (Philippians 3:10) except as we bring to mind what it was that made those sufferings necessary, and the recollection of our past wickedness will produce a broken heart and contrite spirit. "This will give an admirable relish to the paschal lamb: Christ will be as sweet to us, as sin be bitter" (Matthew Henry, 1662-1714).

"When Mordecai perceived all that was done, Mordecai rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and a bitter cry " (Esther 4:1). This was because the king had issued an edict that on a certain day all the Jews in his provinces were to be slain. "Public calamities, especially those which oppress the Church of God, should more affect our hearts than any private afflictions" (Thomas Scott, 1747-1821). If we are concerned for the glory of God, we cannot behold with stoic indifference the dishonor now being done to His name throughout Christendom.

Moses refused to eat and drink for forty days and nights because Israel had sinned so grievously against the Lord (Deuteronomy 19:18, 19). Samuel , in anticipation of the divine judgments on Saul, grieved and "cried unto the LORD all night" (1 Samuel 15:11). On a similar occasion, Ezra was prostrated in the deepest sorrow (9:3, 4). David declared, "Rivers of water run down my eyes, because they keep not your law" (Psalm 119:136). Christ wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41), and in this feature, too, we are to be conformed unto Him. When rebuking wayward saints, Paul could only write to them "out of much affliction and anguish of heart" (2 Corinthians 2:4), and in speaking of others, he said, "of whom I tell you, even weeping" (Philippians 3:18).

"Even to day is my complaint [not "complaining"] bitter . My stroke is heavier than my groaning" (Job 23:2). We do not at all agree with those expositors who regard Job as here referring to what they term a "divine desertion," that the Lord had so withdrawn the light of His countenance from the patriarch that he was unable to obtain conscious access to Him. Rather do we think that Job's distress was occasioned by his inability to understand the Lord's dealings with him. His afflictions were so severe, so long-protracted, so inexplicably mysterious to him—that his case was well-near unendurable. He was at a complete loss to understand the divine providence. As he sought to forecast the future, no light was shed on his path. As he reviewed the past (verse 8), he was unable to put his finger on any sin which had provoked God to deal so severely with him. No matter from which angle he sought to view his case (verse 9), the divine dispensations appeared to proceed neither from justice nor from grace. Such a bewildering situation is indeed bitter. If such is yours, comfort yourself with the assurance, "But he knows [even if I do not know] the way that I take: when he has tried me, I shall come forth as gold!" (verse 10).

"Who whet their tongue like a sword, and bend their bows to shoot their arrows, even bitter words " (Psalm 64:3). There are some sensitive dispositions which find this experience harder to endure than bodily pains or temporal losses. While it be true that "hard words never broke any bones," yet some are cut to the very quick when sharp words are spoken against or even to them. Sly insinuations and false accusations are like arrows shot from a bow. Spiteful reproaches and evil slanders are grievous trials to many. As the viper fastened on the hand of Paul, so the venomous tongues of the wicked make the godly their mark, seeking to ruin their reputations and distress their minds. They unscrupulously invent falsehoods which are calculated to cause anguish.

If such is the reader's case, let him remember the Lord Jesus—they laid grievous things to His charge which they could not prove. Vile indeed were their words against Him. They charged Him with being a glutton and a wine bibber, said He was a Samaritan, imputed His miracles to diabolical influence, branded His teaching as blasphemous. But "when he was reviled, he reviled not in return."

"Your own wickedness shall correct you, and your backslidings shall reprove you: know therefore and see that it is an evil and bitter thing, that you have forsaken the LORD your God" (Jeremiah 2:19). Backsliding implies a relationship to Him, whether it be in profession or reality. Every sin committed by a Christian is not a backsliding, any more than every spot is leprosy. He may sin through ignorance, be overtaken in a fault, or find sin cleaving to him when it is loathed and resisted.

Backsliding imports a willful step, though it ever begins in the heart before it is manifested in the outward life. God no longer has His rightful place in the soul, and the creature is preferred before Him. Bitter indeed are the consequences, for he is made to reap the sour fruits of his evil sowings. "The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways" (Proverbs 14:14). He no longer delights in the Lord or seeks His glory, but is occupied with his own wretchedness. The joy of the Lord is no longer his strength, nor does His peace rule in his heart. A coldness in prayer seizes upon him, relish of the Word is lost, a burdened conscience is now his portion. "The way of the transgressor is hard" (Proverbs 13:15), whether it be trod by the converted or by the unconverted—double so to the former.

"But if you have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, do not boast and lie not against the truth" (James 3:14). Sad indeed is it that the Lord's own people require such an exhortation as this; yet both the history of the past and the conditions now obtaining in the churches, evince the need for it. In it, we are shown the acrid fruit which issues from that extreme austerity which is contrary to "the meekness of wisdom" of the preceding verse, namely, an unreadiness to forgive one another and live at peace with all men.

There may be envy without contention, yet it is usually contention which makes the envying bitter; and, as John Calvin pointed out, "That prevails not except when minds are so infatuated with the poison of malignity that they turn all things into bitterness." Where there is such pride and animosity against any differing from you, boast not of it as though you were endowed with greater wisdom, wiser discernment or more zeal for the truth than others. Glory not in your shame. "Holy zeal and bitter envyings, are as different as the flames of seraphim and the fire of Hell" (Matthew Henry). That which produces breaches between Christians rarely proceeds from love to God, but is generally the overflow of gall and anger.

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