The character of inattentive hearers considered.
Matt. xiii. 4
And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way-side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured them up.
We have explained at large the leading ideas in this parable, and proceed now to consider the several kinds of hearers our Lord meat to describe. Their characters are drawn with admirable precision, and will furnish us with many useful lessons of instruction. They may be all classed under four heads—the INATTENTIVE—the ENTHUSIASTIC—the WORLDLY-MINDED—the SINCERE. It is upon the first of these we are now to discourse.
FIRST, The INATTENTIVE, or those upon whose minds the word has no salutary effect at all. When the Sower casts abroad his seed, some fall on the path lying through the field, or on that without the enclosure, the way-side, or causey: and so the ground being common, uncultivated and grown hard by being frequently trod on, it is incapable of receiving the seed into it. Here therefore it lies, and is either bruised or destroyed by the feet of him who next passes that way; or else the fowls of the air, birds or prey quickly come and devour it. How natural the description!
Let us now hear our Saviour’s exposition of this part of the parable. When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart: this is he who received seed by the way side.—Here several things are to be observed, as,
1. These persons hear the word. They are not deaf, and so utterly incapable of hearing. Nor are they determined at all events that they will not hear. This is the deplorable character of too many people. They fly from the word of God and the means of religion, as they would from the pestilence. They refuse him that speaketh, that is, will not so much as give him a hearing. No consideration can prevail on them to enter the places where the gospel is preached. And when God in his providence calls aloud to them, they reply, as did the Jews of whom the prophet Jeremiah speaks, I will not hear; and this is their manner from their youth (Chap. xxii. 21). But the persons here meant to be described do hear. So far their conduct is commendable.—But then,
2. They are only occasional hearers of the word. They are, in regard of the assemblies where the gospel is preached, what the way side is to the field where the seed is sown, ground without the enclosure, or whereon the seed falls as it were accidentally or by chance. They come now and then to the house of God, induced by motives of curiosity and amusement, or others more base and unworthy. But admitting that in compliance with custom, education, or at best the constraints of conscience, they attend more regularly; yet,
3. They are not at all prepared for hearing the word. The ground is beaten ground, it has received no cultivation whatever. Keep they foot, says the wise man, when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools (Eccles v. 1). We ought to consider before hand what we are about, to look well to our views and motives, and to endeavour to compose our minds to the solemnities of divine service. But to these exercises of the heart the persons we are here speaking of are perfect strangers. They rush into the presence of almighty God as the horse into the battle, without any awe of that great Being upon their spirits, and without any concern to profit by what they hear. And hence it may be presumed,
4. That they hear in a heedless desultory manner. Their attention is not fixed, their thoughts are not collected, they regard not the drift of the discourse, observe not the connection, nor comprehend the reasoning. And so,
5. They understand it not, that is, they remain grossly ignorant. Not that they are destitute of the powers of perception and reasoning, in a state of absolute idiocy or insanity. No. They have common sense, and it may be a great deal of natural sprightliness and sagacity. But not using the faculties they are endowed with, not listening to what they hear, and not taking pains to apprehend and retain it; they only affix some general idea to this or that passing sentence: and so are as uninformed as if they did not hear at all.—But there are some in the class of hearers our Lord here describes who,
6. Do in a sense understand the word: for the seed is said, in the latter part of the verse, to be sown in their hearts. Now these persons hear with more attention, but alas! to no better purpose, than the others: for their attention being the fruit of mere curiosity, all the knowledge they acquire in religion is merely speculative. And of this they have, perhaps, not a little, insomuch that they think themselves qualified to be teachers of others. But with all their systematical acquaintance with doctrines, all their knowledge of technical terms, all their nice distinctions, and all their profound metaphysical reasonings; they are miserably ignorant of what lies at the foundation of religion. They know not their own hearts, they perceive not the evil of sin, they apprehend not the danger to which they are exposed, they have no just idea of their need of Christ and his salvation, and of the beauty and excellence of true holiness. They hold the truth in unrighteousness, a great deal of error is mixed with it, or if their notions are just, yet there is one grand truth of which they have no conception at all, and that is the infinite importance of these things. And so these persons may be said not to understand the word of the kingdom.—But if they do in a sense understand it, yet,
7. It makes not any abiding impression on the heart. The seed, as Luke expresses it, was trodden down, and that instantly by the next passenger. So divine instructions are treated by these persons with contempt, or at best with indifference. They are not laid up in the memory, and seriously considered and reflected upon, but are quickly forgotten and lost. These hearers of the word are like unto a man that beholdeth his natural face in a glass, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was (James i. 23, 24)—And this leads us to what is principally observable in the text, and that is,
8. And lastly, our Saviour’s account of the manner in which these impressions are effaced, and all their salutary effect defeated. The fowls of the air came and devoured the seed, which had thus fallen on the way-side or beaten path: which our Lord explains of the wicked one’s coming and catching away that which was sown in the hearts of them that heard, lest, as Luke adds, they should believe and be saved.—Here three things are to be considered
I. Who this wicked one is, and why he is so called;
II. What is meant by his catching away the seed, and how this is done: and,
III. What is the malevolent end proposed—that they might not believe and be saved.
I. Who is this wicked one, and why is he so called?
The wicked one is Satan, as Mark expressed it (Chap iv. 15); and the Devil, as Luke has it (Chap viii. 12). To deny that such a spirit can exist, merely because our eyes do not behold him, is most unreasonable, and in effect to deny the Being of God himself. And to deny that he actually does exist, is to deny the truth of the scriptures. But I am not here debating with either atheists or deists. It is admitted that there is such an one as Satan or the devil.
Now for our account of him we must be indebted to the bible. And what does that tell us concerning him? It tells us that he is the chief and leader of that numerous host of angels which waged war against Heaven, and for their rebellion were driven thence in to the mansions of the damned, where they are reserved in everlasting chains under darkness, unto the judgment of the great day (Jude i. 6). He is endowed with powers which far transcend those of mankind; and these, stimulated by insufferable pride and desperate malevolence, are exerted with all possible energy to oppose the counsel of God and the interests of men. Hence he is called Satan, that is, the adversary; and the devil, that is, the accuser. It was he that seduced our first parents from their allegiance to Heaven and so introduced sin and death into our world: where, having thus set up his standard, he still exercises his usurped authority. He is the prince of this world (John xiv. 30), the prince of the power of the air (Ephes. ii. 2). It was he that solicited the destruction of the patriarch Job (Ch. i. 6.—ult. Ch. ii. 1---7). It was he that stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number the people (I Chron. xxi. 1). It was he who, by becoming a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets, persuaded Ahab to fight with the Syrian king to his ruin (2 Chron xviii. 20, 21). It was he that stood at the right hand of Joshua the high priest, to resist him (Zech. iii. 1, 2). It was he, in fine, that tempted our Saviour in the wilderness, most virulently opposed his ministry, and was the chief actor in the last sad catastrophe of his sufferings and death.
Wicked men, stiled in scripture the children of the devil, are his ministers; sometimes openly executing his commands, and at others, like their master who transforms himself into an angel of light, assuming the character of ministers of righteousness (2 Cor. xi. 14, 15). So with all power, and signs and lying wonders, he propagates through our world error, vice, and discord, with a long train of the most tremendous evils (2 Thes. ii. 8,9). And so this once peaceful and pleasant spot is become an Aceldama, a field of blood. Horrid monster! To thy influence all the calamities our eyes behold and our hearts lament, are to be traced back; and upon they devoted head it is fit the wrath of incensed justice, and the curse of injured innocence, should fall.
Further, he not only carries on his designs by instruments employed to that end, but has himself access to the hearts of men; and though he cannot force them to act against their will, yet he knows how by a thousand arts to catch their attention, play upon their imagination, inflame their desires, and rouse their passions. He, the god of this world, blinds the minds of them who believe not (2 Cor. iv. 4); works in the children of disobedience (Ephes ii. 2.); puts it into the heart of Judas to betray his Master (John xiii. 2); fills the heart of Ananias to lie to the Holy Ghost (Acts v. 3); lays snares for some, in order to lead them captive (2 Tim. ii. 26); and walks about like a roaring lion, to devour others (1 Peter, v. 8); beguiles the former through his subtilty, using a variety of wiles and devices in order to get advantage against them (2 Cor. xi. 13, 14; Ephes. vi. 11; 2 Cor. ii. 11); and violently assaults the latter, now by his messengers buffeting them, and then discharging his fiery darts at them (2 Cor. xii. 7, Ephes. vi. 16). In fine, he, the old serpent called the devil and satan, deceiveth the whole world (Rev. xii. 9); and having so done, accuseth them before God day and night (Rev. xii. 10).
From this short scriptural account of satan it appears with what propriety he is here, and in many other passages, stiled emphatically the wicked one. He is wicked himself in the highest degree, for as he exceeds all others in subtilty and power, so also in impiety and sin: a spirit the most proud, false, envious, turbulent, and malignant among all the various orders of fallen spirits. He too is the author of all wickedness, the contriver and promoter of every species of iniquity. Whence the infinitely numerous evils that prevail in our world are called the works of the devil (1 John iii. 8). Such is the character of this first apostate archangel, the grand, avowed enemy of God and man.—And thus are we led to our second inquiry,
II. What is meant by his catching away the seed, and how this is done.
Immediately, as Mark has it (Chap. iv. 15), upon the seeds falling on the ground, the fowls of the air came and devoured them up. So as our Saviour interprets this circumstance, the wicked one cometh, and catcheth away the word of the kingdom that had been sown, or had loosely fallen on the hearts of those just now described.
When the sons of God, as we read in the story of Job, came to present themselves before the Lord, satan came also among them to prevent himself before the Lord (Job i. 6, ch. ii, 1). In like manner, wherever the gospel is preached, he watches his opportunity to prevent the due effect of the word upon those who hear it. To give a physical account of the manner in which he exerts his influence to that end, is not my business. It is enough to observe, that if we have modes of communicating our ideas to one another, and of exercising the powers of persuasion over the minds and passions of men; there is no absurdity in supposing that satan, though not clothed in a human body or visible to a natural eye, may have access to the heart. And the language of our Saviour is so directly and strongly to the point, that it is scarce possible to give it a meaning that can any way justify a denial of fact. If it were downright enthusiasm to suppose that satan can have any intercourse with the human mind, how is it imaginable that our Lord, who was a clear decisive reasoner upon every subject, would expressly tell us, in the explanation of the parable, and without the least caution to beware of misinterpreting him, that the wicked one cometh and catcheth away the word from the heart? He spoke to plain people, and did not mean to ensnare them with enigmatic or figurative language. Besides, the opinion that then prevailed of the influence of satan in our world was so general, that if there had been no ground for the fact, such language as this in our text, and in those other passages just cited, where satan is said to have put it into the heart of Judas to betray his master, to have filled the heart of Ananias to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to work in the children of disobedience; such language I say, could not in that case be excused of the charge of disingenuity and a disposition to temporize.
No doubt the doctrine I am defending has been abused by enthusiasts, on the one hand, and imposters, on the other. But if men would attend to the calm dictates of reason and scripture, they would be in no danger from either of these quarters. For no more is meant by the influence which satan is supposed in certain cases to exert over the mind, than what is similar to the influence which wicked men are acknowledge to have over others; to allure them by persuasions to sin, and to dissuade them by menaced from their duty. It cannot force them into sin, against the consent of their will; or, in other words, so operate on their minds as to deprive them of that freedom, which is necessary to constitute them accountable creatures. And in no case is it exerted but by the permission and under the control of the infinitely superior being. To return.
This mighty adversary watches his opportunity to prevent the salutary effect of the word upon those that hear it. And considering what is the character of the sort of hearers we are here speaking of, it is not to be wondered at that he is permitted to catch away the seed sown in their hearts, or that he succeeds in the attempt. For if their motives in attending upon divine service are base and unworthy, if they address themselves to the duties of religion without any previous preparation, if they hear in a careless desultory manner, and if prejudices against he truth are cherished rather than opposed, all which as we have seen, is the case; how righteous is it in God to permit satan to use every possible artifice to defeat the great and good neds to which religious instructions are directed! Here then let us consider what these artifices are, at the same time remembering that they take effect, and can only do so, by falling in with the false reasonings and perverse dispositions of those on whom they are practiced. How does satan catch away the good seed from the heart? That is our inquiry. I answer—by diverting men’s attention from the word while they are hearing it, or while they seem to hear it—by exciting prejudices against it—and by preventing their recollecting it afterwards.
1. Satan uses his utmost endeavours to divert men’s attention from the word while they are hearing it.
The utility and indeed necessity of attention, in order to our reaping advantage from the word, is evident at first view. How is it possible that I should understand what another says, and so be benefited by it, if I do not listen to him? Nor will my hearing a word now and then, or catching a sentence as it passes, do me any material good. We must apply with seriousness, affection, and earnestness, if we will comprehend the reasoning of the speaker and feel the force of his persuasions. Hoc age, said the Roman crier to the people when the priest led them on to sacrifice. So we must be all attention, or the service will be unacceptable to God, and unprofitable to ourselves.
Now a great variety of circumstances may and often do occur, to divert the mind from what ought to be its only object on these occasions. And where there is no resolution or even wish to resist these temptations, it is easy to see who they will operate to prevent all salutary effect from the word. The man I hear mean to describe, not caring at all whether he is profited by what is said, will not fail to be haunted with a thousand vain and perhaps criminal thoughts and passions. Now, the person, voice, attitude, and manner of the preacher, shall wholly occupy his attention; and if there be any thing singular in either of them, excite disgust or pleasantry. And then his eye shall be caught by the audience, the place where they are assembled, and particularly the countenance, dress and demeanor of this or that person who sits near him. And so an infinite multitude of idle ridiculous ideas shall crowd in upon his mind, ad like so many demons take possession of his depraved imagination Or if his attention is not arrested by surrounding objects, the businesses and amusements of life, with all their perplexing anxieties and fascinating desires, shall captivate his thought and create a long train of reveries, from which, even if he were disposed, he would find it difficult to extricate himself. And thus while the wisdom divine truth is before him that hath understanding, the fool’s eyes are in the ends of the earth (Prov. Xvii. 24) There are few assemblies which do not furnish some striking examples of such criminal inattention, here one quietly composing himself to sleep, and there another indecently gazing on all around him. And I fear the hearts of the generality of hearers, could we enter into them, would exhibit the sad scene we have been describing in its full force; a torrent of wild, unconnected, trifling thoughts pouring in upon the mind, without even the feeble fence of one sober consideration or reflection to resist it.
Thus does satan catch away the seed from the hearts indisposed to receive it. He tempts, and they fall in with the temptation. He plays upon the imagination by surrounding objects, or by impertinent ideas suggested to the mind, and they are pleased with what they little suspect to be the artifice of this subtle adversary. Instead of watching each avenue of the soul, they throw open the door to every vile intruder, and revel in the most wanton and dissipated company, while they are supposed to be sitting attentively at the feet of divine instructions. So this mighty enemy sets up his standard in their bosoms, and bids defiance to the counsels, reproofs, and expostulations of God’s word. So he holds his miserable vassals fast in the chains of ignorance and unbelief. And so they go away from the house of God as uninformed, unaffected and unimproved as they came thither.
How lamentable the case of these hearers! But however stupid they may remain for awhile, conscience will by and by rouse, and do its office. The day is coming when this sad abuse of the means of religion will be recollected with pungent griefs. They will mourn at the last, to use the words of Solomon, when their flesh and their body are consumed, and they will say, How have I hated instruction, and my heart despised reproof? And have not obeyed the voice of my teachers, nor inclined my ear to them that instructed me? I was almost in all evil, in the midst of the congregation and the assembly (Prov. v, 11-14).
2. Satan uses every art to excite and inflame men’s prejudices against the word they hear.
Pride and pleasure are passions that predominate in the human heart: whatever therefore opposes them must needs be irksome, and cannot gain admission to the mind without many painful struggles. Now the gospel sands directly opposed to these criminal passions. It brings indeed glad tidings of great joy, and is accompanied with sufficient evidence. But then it teaches the most humiliating and self-denying truths—that we are all miserably ignorant, guilty, and depraved; that we are wholly indebted for our hope of escaping the wrath to come and acquiring the happiness of heaven, to the free grace of God through the mediation of Christ; that we must humbly renounce all merit at the feet of divine mercy, and submit ourselves to the righteousness of God (Romans x. 3).—It teaches that, as it is most reasonable we should exert every power in the pursuit of heavenly blessings, so it is God that worketh in us to will and to do of his good pleasure (Philip. Ii. 13); and that it is by grace we are saved, through faith, and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God (Ephesians ii. 8).—and it further teaches that if we will be the disciples of Christ, we must deny ourselves, and take up our cross, and follow him(Luke ix. 23); must prefer intellectual and spiritual to carnal and sensual pleasures, renounce the pomps and vanities of the world, and in the painful discipline of the heart, and patient submission to trouble, adhere to our divine Master and his interest to the end. Such is the word of the kingdom, to which there is a deep-rooted aversion in the hearts of men; an aversion so confirmed in some by the indulgence of criminal passions, that it is almost unconquerable.
Now in order to prevent a person’s becoming a convert to religion, if he is not to be dissuaded from frequenting public worship, or if when there, his attention is not to be wholly diverted from the word by any of the artifices just mentioned; what is to be done? Why, an artful enemy, could he have access to the mind, would suggest all those ideas to it that are adapted to rouse that aversion to the gospel of which we have been speaking and, which, once roused, would not fail to indispose the mind to a calm and impartial attention to the reasoning of the preacher. He would address the passions of pride and pleasure in every possible way. He would make every imaginable circumstance tend to his purpose. He would give an unfavorable cast to the doctrine, person, abilities, views, voice, and attitude of the speaker; and to the character, sense, manners, and rank of his audience. These he would place in such a disgusting light as to provoke contempt if not abhorrence. He would whisper in his ear such language as this: "What! Become a convert to a doctrine that affronts your reason and good sense, degrades you to the rank of brutes, yea beneath it, makes you a mere machine, or at best tells you that you must be a fool for Christ’s sake! Will you be a dupe to this idle declaimer, and a fellow disciple with these mad enthusiasts? Will you sacrifice all your just pretensions to wit, sense, and ingenuity, and all your prospects of honor, wealth, and pleasure? Will you be content to take your lot among a company of ill-natured conceited fools, or perhaps designing knaves, who monopolize the favor of heaven to themselves, and deal out their anathemas without mercy on all others? Will you be so lost to all refined reason and manly courage as to become a sniveling penitent, a senseless devotee, a bigoted religionist? Will you tear yourself from all your former gay, cheerful, and respectable connections, part with a present certainty for the chimeras of futurity, and spend your remaining days in contempt, gloominess, and sorrow? If so, then listen to what these people say, implicitly believe their doctrine, and henceforth give yourself up tamely to the guidance of blind impulse and passion." Such would be the language of this artful deceiver.
That such thoughts have arisen in the minds of multitudes while the gospel has been soberly preached, and they upon the point of paying some attention to its reasonings and expostulations can scarce e doubted. And why we should not admit hat satan may have an influence to suggest them I know not. Of this, however, I am sure, that the language in our text looks strongly that way—the wicked one cometh and catcheth away that which was sown in the heart. But permit me again to observe that these measures of the great adversary cannot succeed, without the consent of the unhappy man on whom he practices them.—Once more,
3. Another artifice satan uses to counteract the influence of God’s word on men’s hearts, is to prevent their recollecting it after they have heart id.
More depends upon the duty of recollection and self-application than men commonly apprehend. If indeed the end of preaching were only to rouse the passions by a blind kind of impulse, without the communication of nay knowledge to the mind, or the fixing any solid conviction on the judgment and conscience; I do not see what great good would result from recollection. In that case, all my business would be to recover those sensations of terror and astonishment, or of admiration and joy, which were created in my breast by the tone, gesture, and eagerness of the speaker. And what advantage it would be to me afterwards, any more than at the time of my hearing, to possess these merely mechanical sensations, I am at a loss to say. But if the end of preaching is, by informing the understanding and convincing the judgment, to make the heart better; then, upon the same principle that it is men’s duty to hear the word attentively, and to endeavour to the utmost of their power to comprehend it, it is their duty afterwards to recollect the ideas they got, and the impressions that were thereby made upon their affections, while they sat at the feet of instruction.
This would be, in a sense, hearing the word again, hearing it with double advantage, with abiding and substantial effect. The ideas thus revived, the sentiments thus familiarized, the reasoning thus digested, the sacred truths thus applied and brought home to the heart; would with the blessing of God produce not only similar feelings, but a further, increasing, effectual, permanent influence upon the temper and life. And indeed it is heard to conceive how a man’s understanding should be informed, and his heart deeply impressed with what he has heard; and he not disposed to recover the remembrance of what has passed. Was there ever an instance of any one who received real benefit from a sermon, which he never thought of afterwards? All due allowance is to be made for the irretentiveness of some memories, and the peculiar unfavorableness of some person’s situation and circumstances to the duty I am recommending. But it is a duty most reasonable in itself, earnestly inculcated in scripture, and if there were a hearty good will to it, would be found to have fewer real obstructions to it than is commonly pretended.
Now we will suppose a person to have heard the word, to have affixed some ideas to it, and to have received some transient impressions from it; in this case what is to be done in order to prevent its salutary effect? Satan is a more subtle artful enemy than is commonly apprehended. Perceiving this vassal of his on the point of revolting from his service, in a situation far more hazardous than that of another whom he has influence enough to lull fast asleep under the loud calls of the gospel, or of one in whose breast he has address enough to excite those malignant prejudices mentioned under the former particular; perceiving, I say, this liege subject in danger of being torn from his dominion, he must have recourse to other artifices than those already used. And what more likely to succeed, than those whereby the remembrance of what has been heard may be erased, and the unhappy man thrown back into exactly the same situation he was before he entered the doors of such Christian assembly? Here various expedients offer directly adapted to the purpose. And if I might be allowed to use figurative language, to give energy to this alarming subject, I would bring forward satan to view in the most hideous form, issuing his commands to a legion of demons, to seize on this apprehended apostate from his kingdom, to rifle him of every serious thought that occupied his mind, and to bind him fast in the chains of thoughtlessness and dissipation.
If there be truth in religion, it is certainly the most important thing in the whole world. To the man therefore who begins to be persuaded by what he has heard not only of the possibility but the high probability of the truth, it is the language of common sense as well as religion, "Go home, retire, call over the matters that have been discoursed of, weigh them in the impartial balance of consideration, search the scriptures, enquire into your true character and state towards God, look forward to death and judgment, and address your fervent cries to heaven for mercy." Surely there is no enthusiasm in this. It is the language of calm and sober reason. In matters of far less importance than these, admonitions to reflection and consideration would be deemed prudent and salutary. But alas! the unhappy man of whom we are speaking, though struck by the reasoning of the preacher, as was Felix with the discourse of the apostle Paul, has not resolution to fall in with this advice so natural, reasonable, and beneficial. He has beheld himself for a moment in the mirror of truth, trembled at the deformity of his countenance, and faintly wished to take measures for the restoration of the health of his soul; but—O sad to think!—he goes away, and forgets what manner of man he is. The soft siren-persuasions of a deceitful heart, and a thousand surrounding snares, artfully laid by satan for his ruin, prevail.
He has scarce left the assembly, where a solemn awe had seized his spirits, but some trifling object catches his imagination, sets all his passions afloat, banishes every serious sentiment from his breast, and precipitates him into his former state of levity and inconsideration. Instead of retiring silently to his own mansion, and there calling himself and his family to account upon the interesting concerns of religion; he is instantly seen in a circle of vain, thoughtless, giddy people, where the subjects of conversation are totally foreign to those which just now occupied his attention. News, dress, amusements, schemes of pleasure or business, or, to say the best, trifling remarks on the preacher, the audience, or some singularity in the behavior of this or that person in the assembly; these are the topics of the evening, and thus is every serious impression erased, and all the benefit to be expected from public instruction entirely lost. Nor is it to be thought strange, the day thus closed without even the forms of religion, that the businesses and amusements of the succeeding week, should bury in utter oblivion the poor shadowy remains of a serious sentiment or an heartless wish about God and another world.
Thus have we seen by what measures satan catches away the good seed from the hearts of men—by diverting their attention from the word while heart it—by exciting prejudices in their breasts against it—and by preventing their seriously recollecting it afterwards. So we are led to consider, in the third place, the malevolent end proposed thereby that they might not believe and be saved (Luke viii. 12). But this, with the improvement of the subject, we shall refer to the next opportunity.