What is the chaff to the wheat? Is not my word like as a fire: and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces? Jeremiah 23:28
The context just read in your hearing helps very much to understand the primary import of the words in the text. God brings a charge against the religious teachers of the ancient land of Israel. His charge consists of several specifications. The first is that they have stolen His Word from the people. The second is that they have substituted for it a counterfeit Word, having the form of godliness without power; that is, all shucks and no corn. The third is that they have forged the name and the seal of God to this counterfeit. The next is that this Word so presented to the people was unprofitable. It not only did them no good, but it created a very hurtful delusion in their minds, which delusion was this: That a man can sin and not be punished; that a man can be stubborn in his own way, rejecting the way of God, and yet have peace.
These specifications lead up to the text, which asserts the superiority of God’s Word over man’s inventions and sets forth its potency by a happy illustration. The excellency of this Word the text affirms by two interrogations: “What is the chaff to the wheat?” That is the first one. And second, “The Word of God is like a fire and a hammer.” We are now prepared to look into these two comparisons for their import. What is the chaff to the wheat? The chaff is the husk, the shuck that envelops the grain of wheat and serves an exceedingly useful purpose.
But this object, the design of its creation, is simply that it shall be useful to the wheat it contains. If it is simply a shuck, if there is no corn in it, then it serves no good purpose. It is the form. The other is the power. There is a form and there is a power of God’s Word. The form serves a very useful purpose, but when it is only a form, then it serves less than a useful end, since it deceives by a seeming life and value where there is none.
A farmer understands the illustration. There has been a blight or a drouth. There is the straw. There stands the waving wheat in the field with only husks instead of heavy heads of grain. It looks like it is good wheat, but the thresher reveals the true story. On the other hand, one must see and acknowledge the excellency of the chaff in protecting the tender, juicy grain unto maturity. All farmers have observed occasionally an ear of corn that has no shuck on it, coming out on the tassel perhaps. You never saw an ear of corn of that kind that was any account. An ear of corn that has no husk is itself no good.?These facts of nature suggest two parallels in the spiritual world. There is a class of people who in their zeal against forms, ceremonies and organizations demand the production of naked wheat. These are the people that say it makes no difference what you believe about the church. Any church will do, or no church will do. It makes no difference what you believe with reference to ordinances. Ordinances are mere forms and you can do without them.
Well, you can do without them just as the ear of corn can do without the shuck. I never saw one of these who despised all form, all organization, whose religious life did not resemble that aborted, smutty ear of corn on the tassel. And as there never was one of them yet fit for the garner or the mill, so I don’t think the world ever did produce a profitable Christian who ran on the independent line, despising form and organization. There must be the form and there must be the power. However, the charge here is that the teachers have counterfeited a form. They have had a seeming message from God. They have taken a vision of their own heart and have stamped upon it the imprimatur of Jehovah. Now, He says with reference to that, “What is the chaff to the wheat?” What is a counterfeit to the true dollar? Let us see if we can understand the next illustration: “My Word is as a fire and a hammer.” The reference is unquestionably here to a form of metallurgy. As that is a big word, I shall explain. It means the science, or art, of extracting metals from the crude ore. It is one of the first arts ever devised by man. Tubal-cain, you will remember, sixth in descent from Cain, was an instructor of all artificers in brass and iron. Job, in that oldest book, reveals the antiquity of the art of extracting metal from the ore. He says, “Surely there is a vein for the silver, and a place for gold where they find it. Iron is taken from the earth and brass is molten from the stone.” Often, in both the Testaments is God’s dealing with His people compared with this smelting process: “He shall sit as a refiner of silver,” and “your faith shall be as gold tried in the fire.”
Now, when it is said that the Word of God is as a fire and a hammer, let us see what is its significance. There are yet in existence old mines that were worked about the time that Jeremiah prophesied, in which the fire and the hammer were used just as he describes it here. The metal being in the rock and the rock being very hard, the first thing done was to build a fire around it. That fire expelled all volatile constituents. After roasting it with fire, then they struck the rock with the hammer and so more easily broke and pulverized it.
There were three fire processes under what is called the roasting and the reducing and the refining of gold or silver. In the first instance the fire made the huge rock?brittle, while the hammer reduced its bulk into usable fragments. By another process the metal was separated from the rock fragments, and by a third it was refined. Isaiah refers to one or, the other of these processes as does Malachi and a number of the other old prophets, showing the agency of the fire or hammer. Now, when God says, “My Word is like a fire and a hammer,” we easily get its import, for up to the present time, with all the inventions that men have made, in one form or another, metallurgy still requires the fire and hammer. The modern quartz crusher is only the hammer breaking the rock in pieces. So, in any metal taken from the earth, you may trace from its original state to its last and most delicate formation, whether of the iron, steel, brass, tin, gold, or silver, the agency of the fire and the hammer. You cannot dispense with the furnace. You cannot dispense with the hammer.
In referring to the spiritual condition brought about by the processes of God’s providence, our Lord speaks to Isaiah to this effect: “I have tried you as for silver. I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.” And it is said with reference to our Savior when He comes, “Who can abide the day of His coming? For He shall sit as a refiner of silver. He shall purify the sons of Levi.”
We now have before us the import, the symbolized import, of the two illustrations, that as far as leading men away from death and unto life, as far as purifying them from sin is concerned, the potent or only efficient instrument is the Word of God. That is wheat, containing the seed of life, while any device of man is but chaff. That is the fire and hammer as compared with man’s naked hand in crumbling the granite mountains in search of precious metals.
Now, let us look at the application. There comes a religious teacher, posing as an instructor in ordinances, setting himself up to be an expounder of the spiritual destiny of man. How can he as a teacher do other than harm when he turns aside from the Word of God, and when he speaks of sin as if he had an itching ear, saying to the people, “I have a vision. I have an – impression. I have a dream that you may despise God and go unpunished; that you may sin and yet have peace”? The world is full of just such teachers. They come in more shapes than Proteus assumed, frequently in the guise of science, falsely so called. They underestimate the Word of God. They steal away the Word of God from their neighbors.
How is that done? That you may understand the process of stealing away the Word of God from the people, I will take you to the starter of it, the first thief of the Word of God, the original robber. Our Savior tells about him in a parable. A sower went forth to sow and some seed fell by the wayside and the birds of the air came and devoured them. What means that parable? It means that Satan comes and takes?away the Word that has been preached, lest the people should retain it and be converted. That is stealing the Word. Satan was the first robber of God’s Word. Now, these false teachers, who substitute the visions of their own hearts, the vagaries of their own imagination, or the misty speculations of their philosophy for the Word of God, commit two evils. One is, they rob the people of the most priceless and inestimable gift that God has ever given to man His revelation. The other is that they substitute for it a shuck that never held an ear of corn. Chaff! Chaff! Chaff! A field of a thousand acres of it would never produce one grain of wheat. Yet it takes on the semblance of wheat in order to deceive, hence, counterfeit, and then forges the name of God to it in order to make it pass current among men, saying, “Thus saith the Lord. This is the teaching of God. You may sin and have peace. You may rebel against Him and never find hell. You may go on in deceit and robbery. You may go on in lust. You may go on violating natural and moral and spiritual laws, and God’s love will see at last that you come out all right.” And so they cry, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.”
And so they come to people who are awakened upon the subject of religion, take out the clapper of the alarm bell, lull them to sleep, rock and fan them while they sleep, in order that there may be a dream of false peace instead of the startling and awful reality God’s Word reveals. “Awake, O sleeper; arise from the dead and Christ shall give you light!”
Let us make the application here. The first remark I wish to make is this, that never in the history of the world have there been so many teachers trying to get the ear of the people on questions of morals and religion, the effects of whose teachings is this: Dispense with the Word of God. Turn from that light. Stealing the grain of wheat, they offer the man the empty chaff, taking away the fire and the hammer and telling him to go to adamantine mountains with his naked fingers and dig out the precious metal of truth.
Do you suppose that men could wish such indifference as to the result, could, with such mental equipoise, violate the most capital and cardinal points of the moral law, and smile and look up without dread to heaven, and live unterrified by the approach of death, and have no apprehensions concerning the judgment, if by some false teaching received in the heart, some empty counterfeit truth, they have now beguiled themselves with this delusion – Death is not the wages of sin? The boys have it. The girls have it. The young men and the young women, the older men and the older women, go through life and say, “No revelation; no Word of God.” That has been taken away and in the place of that we have Spiritualism as one husk, or we have science as another shuck, or we have political economy as?another, or we have public instruction. We look to these for the regeneration of the world and leave out the Word of God. And in one mad, mazy whirl they dance on down, down to the edge of the precipice, which yawns at the terminus of life, and over which they fall into an infinite and bottomless pit, which is filled with the wrath of God.
That man is an enemy of truth in any of its forms, an opponent to the well being of society; he undermines the foundation of the social and political fabrics; he is a murderer of moral and spiritual hope, who will say to the people by his example or by any form of teaching, “God will acquit the guilty. Peace! Peace! There shall no evil come.”
So said the first preacher of this doctrine when he whispered as a tempter in the ear of the first woman: “Surely ye shall not die.” God hath said, “In the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” “Nay,” says Satan, “eat and be wise. No harm can come to you. Despise God. Turn from His Word. Live upon your lusts and your chance is as good as anybody’s. Believe what you please. It makes no difference what. Lay aside all fear. Give up the life and take the shell.” I repeat that any such teacher, in the language of God, stands indicted, first, of robbery. He has stolen God’s Word from the people. He is indicted as a counterfeiter in that he has held up an empty form, a seeming entity, in the place of the wheat. He is indicted as a forger in that he has affixed God’s name to this vision of his own heart. He is indicted as an enemy of his race in that he has taken away the means of life and left only darkness and delusion in its stead. Go back to the martyr days of our Anglo-Saxon fathers in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, when priestly mummeries and lying traditions and empty forms exiled God’s Word, and you have a fine example.
Hear the story as told by the modest but gifted President of Wake Forest College, one of the sweetest spirits now moulding the youth of the South. I quote from a recent article in the “Religious Herald”:
“In the year 1353, several young Irish priests came over to England to study divinity. They were obliged to return home, because not a copy of the Bible was to be found at Oxford. Before that century closed, Wycliffe had translated the Bible into English. In 1401 a statute was enacted making the possession of a copy of it punishable with death. Until the year 1534 England was as truly a Roman Catholic country as Italy is today. Tyndale’s New Testament appeared in England in 1526. Ten years later, Tyndale was burned at the stake. Royal and priestly power were, enlisted in checking the circulation and reading of the Scripture. Part of the law of 1543 was that ‘no?artificers, apprentices journeymen, servingmen of the degrees of yeomen, husbandmen or laborers, were to read the Bible or New Testament to themselves, or any other, privately or openly, on pain of imprisonment.’ The short reign of Edward VI (six years) was favorable to the circulation and reading of the Bible. It was succeeded, in 1553, by the persecuting reign of Bloody Mary. To read the Word of God was then a crime. To all the years up to the time of Elizabeth apply the words of Lutterworth: ‘O Christ, the law is hidden in the sepulcher: when wilt Thou send Thy angel to remove the stone and show Thy truth unto Thy flock?’”
Having rescued God’s Word from the chains of the Papist, shall we now surrender it to be hawked at, picked at, and torn by the talons of that modern harpy, Higher Criticism?
The last reflection that I wish to offer upon the subject is this: That those who have any religion, or those who profess any, should join in this kind of a movement: Let us go back to God’s Word. Oh, let us leave the piles of threshed straw and go to the wheat garner. Each grain has life in it. Wrap it in a mummy, put it in a pyramid, shut out the rain and the light from it for a thousand years, and then exhume the mummy and plant the wheat and it grows! There is life in the wheat. And the Word of God is living and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword, a discerner of the thoughts and interests of the heart. It is better than all the light of nature, for while the heavens may “declare the glory of God and the firmament show His handiwork,” yet it is the law of the Lord that is perfect, that “makes wise the simple and that converts the soul.” There is the incorruptible seed that liveth forever.
Oh, let us go back to God’s Word as the basis of belief, as the standard of creeds, as the regulator of life, as the measure of conduct, as the one supreme and infallible test by which all that man is and feels and thinks and does, shall be tried at the last great day.
I say, let us go back to this Word, because you can preach nothing else that will have any tendency to make dead men living men; that will make the enemies of God into friends of God. Therefore, when one who loved it, one who esteemed it as more than his necessary food, one who regarded it as the man of his counsel and the lamp to his feet, felt the chills of old age coming on him, and that paralysis of tongue which takes eloquence away from those once the most gifted; when he saw looming up before him the termination of his earthly career, he turned to the young man unto whom the same word was committed for transmission and thus charged: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). “I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom; preach the Word; be instant in season, and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (2 Timothy 4:14).
Now, as I want to see a revival of the Word of God, I may be pardoned for this statement, easily verified by every thoughtful student of the religious annals of the world, and I defy any man who ever looked into one page of history to dispute the accuracy of the statement that from the day that God made man down to the present time there has never been a religious awakening among the people, there has never been a genuine revival of religion, that has not been preceded by and superinduced by a revival of the Word of God, a turning away from human views and speculations, a going back to the simple, “Thus saith the Lord.”
I know it was so in the time of that Israelitish king when the Word of God was discovered where it had been hidden. It was so in the time of Ezra. It was so in the great Protestant Reformation. The Bible had been chained by the priests to the altar; but when the Word of God was given to the people without note or comment, the bare grain, when the translator came and in the tongue in which the people were born gave them that Word that is brighter than every heavenly light put together, then there came a revival of religion; then there was individual Christianity, personal Christianity; then men were converted; and it must be so now.
I hope that we will turn aside from the fondest dreams in which we ever indulged and from the most cherished speculations that ever beguiled our fancy, and from the loftiest flight of imagination, and from every subtlety of metaphysics, and from every accursed delusion of, falsely so called, science, and come to God’s Word, sow that as wheat that has life in it, use that as the fire and the hammer. Smite with God’s Word, and hard hearts will break; fountains of living water will flow from the granite bosom. Kindle that fire! Heat up that furnace! Smelt the ore! Melt the soul!