by John Owen. (1616-1683)
I SHALL not insist upon the particular opening of these words, but only take some observations from them: — First, This is a very instructive similitude this of silver and dross; therefore it is often made use of by the Holy Ghost: Isa 1:21,22, "How is the faithful city become an harlot! it was full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it; but now murderers. Thy silver is become dross." "Thy silver is become dross;" — this is God's expression of the condition of an apostate people. "Thy silver is become dross." He uses it Jer 6:29,30, "The bellows are burned, the lead is consumed of the fire; the founder melteth in vain: for the wicked are not plucked away. Reprobate silver," refuse silver, drossy silver, "shall men call them." And so here, in this place of the prophet, "Thy silver is become dross"
Secondly, There are two sorts of things that are called the dross of silver. The first is the scoria, that which remains after the furnace, and which manifests, the whole not being departed, the whole to be dross; that is, to be refuse and reprobate silver, — that is, the dross after a trial. There is, secondly, a dross that is called so, which is nothing but the ore the silver is mixed withal before a trial. That is the dross here mentioned, — brass, tin, iron, lead; such things as are mixed with the silver before the trial. When God promises a purification, "I will take away all thy tin," saith he. Now, whenever a nation is thus dross, there is yet some good silver in it. When there is nothing but refuse silver after a trial, then is all thrown away; but when there is a multitude of dross before a trial, there is always some good silver, or else no trial would be made. God is not an unskilful founder, to make a trial when there is no silver in the material. So here, in the text, "As silver is melted in the furnace;" — "as silver."
Thirdly, When the dross is greatly increased, and the silver will not be otherwise separated from it, both dross and silver must into the same furnace. That is the case here; and you will excuse me if I judge it to be the case with ourselves. Both dross and silver must go into the same furnace; for we must observe, — 1. That the furnace belongs to God's covenant. There is nothing in the furnace but that the best silver may be brought into it; and it needs to be brought into it, if it be but a furnace. In the day that God made a covenant with Abraham, Gen 15:17, "it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between the pieces of his sacrifice." There the furnace is dedicated, God's furnace, in those words, for the use of the church. If it be but a furnace, it is in the covenant for the use of the church: for, —
2. God hath an oven as well as a furnace; but the oven belongs not to the church at all: Mal 4:1,
"Behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch."
When was this? Why, first, Christ came as "a refiner and purifier of silver," Mal 3:3; and they are not purified by Christ. And "the day cometh that shall burn as an oven;" that was the day when Jerusalem was burned, and all that wicked, apostate church was consumed. God left them neither root nor branch, when eleven hundred thousand of them were destroyed in that city. That was God's oven, which burned up that wicked, apostate church. Truly, brethren, if we had complied with Christ as a refiner, in the day of his refining, we might have prevented the day of the coming of his oven. However, that is not the thing here threatened; but it is a furnace in common for the silver and for the dross, — the same furnace.
Why then, observe, that when God brings both silver and dross, both good and bad, into the same furnace, it is the highest token of God's displeasure. So it is here in the text, 'Ye shall know that I do it in my fury, and in mine anger, and in my displeasure.' There is nothing more to be trembled at than when all must go into the same furnace. 'I will gather the silver, and the brass, and the iron, and the lead, and the tin together, and they shall go into the same furnace.' God sometimes makes a distinction; as Isa 31:9, "Saith the LORD, whose fire is in Zion, and his furnace in Jerusalem." The "fire" there is the fire of a fining-pot; the "furnace" is a burning furnace. There is such a time, there may be, there hath been such a time, when God wilt bring his own Zion only to the fining-pot, and they shall not be in the furnace with wicked ones. I am afraid the cleansing of the churches is beyond the fining-pot; however, here in my text they are put into the same furnace.
When is a people so overgrown with dross as that it is necessary the good and the bad should go into the same furnace?
I shall name but two plain things: —
1. When the generality of a people are openly wicked and profane. You will see in the following verses of this chapter the reason given why God will put them all into the furnace. And why is it? Because the prophets were wicked, and the priests were wicked, and the princes were wicked, and the people were Wicked. He distributes them all into several parts, — prophets, priests, princes, people; and they are all wicked, and therefore they must into the furnace, saith he. Isaiah also speaks of setting up a furnace, chap.
1. Why will God set up such a dreadful furnace? Why, saith he, verses 5,6, it is because "the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and braises, and putrefying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment." When there is an universal corruption of the ways and walkings of all sorts of men, and of the whole body of the people, then God sets up his furnace.
2. You may add hereunto, that the dross doth so cleave unto the silver that there is no other way of separating them, a, but they must all into the same furnace. When all endeavors fail, warnings fail, chastisements fail, preaching of the word fails, an the silver is not separated from the dross; when men can scarce, professors can scarce, bear to be warned; when they can think of others' sins, but will not think of their own; when they will do nothing towards reformation, but say they shall have peace, — let what will come, one way or other they shall have peace; — there is no way but we must all into the same furnace; nothing else will do.
This is all that I shall observe from the words; only I would make a little use of them in one or two words. And I will say concerning them, as the apostle Paul doth in another case, "This speak I, not the Lord;" that is, not that he spake any thing against the mind of the Lord, but it was that which he had not an immediate revelation about. 'Though,' saith he, 'I judge I have the Spirit of God to guide me according to rule in this matter, yet I have not an especial revelation about it; "This speak I, not the Lord." But when he comes in with that for which he hath a special revelation, then, "This the Lord commandeth, not I." So, truly, I will say two things, whereof one is, 'I say, and not the Lord;' and it is only this, that it is my judgment we are all going into the same furnace. Let men please and flatter themselves as they will, crying, 'The church, the church; The temple of the Lord; Peace, peace;' my judgment is, we are all going into the same furnace with all the brass, and tin, and lead, and iron, in the nation, — going into the same furnace. And do I say so now? do I think so now? Nay, I have been speaking of it to this congregation for some years, that we are all going into the same furnace. But this I can say, 'I speak from the Lord, the Lord speaketh, and not I,' that things are so stated in the rule, so stated in providence, that it is your duty and mine to prepare for the furnace, a fiery furnace, a smoking furnace, that I am afraid God will cast this whole nation into; for, —
First, Neither you nor I can tell what to say as to the sins of the nation, of all sorts of persons, — our priests, prophets, princes, people. Nor you nor I can tell what to say unto the deadness and slowness of all sorts of professors, — of me, and you, and of all sorts of professors, — to come to such a reformation as may be preventive of a furnace; nay, to come to such a reformation as may give us faith to plead for an interest in the fining-pot and not in the furnace. I know what the general hopes of men plead and speak. Well, bring forth your reasons, plead them before God this day, if you can, if you have any thing to plead but sovereign grace and mercy.
And [as for] the utter impossibility that appears by any other way to separate the silver from the dross, to separate us from the world, the plague, the fire, have not done it; signs in the heavens above and in the earth beneath have not done it; the sincere preaching of the gospel, though in weakness, bath not done it; entreaties, beggings, exhortations, have not done it; our prayers have not done it: we cleave unto the world still.
I will not insist upon particulars now; I have showed you enough formerly. So that I know nothing that can be a plea why we should not all into the same furnace. And, —
Secondly, God hath called out his workmen to set up a furnace. The workmen that God calls out in the world are not to make the fining-pot, but men that work in mortar and brick, fit to build a great furnace. And there are all sorts of them; — the Lord help us! God employs his workmen to build the furnace; — some by violence, some by treachery, some by folly; but all prepare a furnace. We may see them at work and hear them working every day, to prepare for this nation a furnace of God's wrath and displeasure.
Now, brethren, this I say, this saith the Lord, when God's workmen are setting up a furnace it is certainly our duty to be building an ark. The persons that were employed about Noah's ark (it is but another kind of allusion) were God's workmen to bring on a destruction that destroyed the old world, the world that repented not at the preaching of Noah. God called out his workmen; but Noah, moved with fear, built an ark. I have observed that the spirits of men do work towards and hearken after every thing that may keep them from fear: generally they do so; and oftentimes most weak and trivial things will put off our fear. But, saith He, "Noah, moved with fear," upon the warning of God that there would come a deluge that would destroy like this furnace, "built an ark." He was moved with fear, and he built an ark. I have often wondered at that word, Ezek 21:9-13. God threatens "a sword, a sword sharpened, and also furbished: it is sharpened to make a sore slaughter; it is furbished that it may glitter: should we then make mirth? He hath given it to be furbished, that it may be handled: this sword is sharpened, and it is furbished, to give it into the hand of the slayer. Smite therefore upon thy thigh." Why? "Because it is a trial," saith he, "and what if the sword contemn even the rod?" — all other meaner afflictions? After having spoken such a great and dreadful word of the sword being furbished and given into the hand of the slayer, "It is a trial," saith he. The meaning is this: Here the people themselves had thoughts of a thousand ways of escaping the sword; and that it should not be a trouble, a trial, unto them, they would bear it this way and that way. Truly, I am ashamed of myself and most of the people of God with whom I converse, to see that we have such thoughts; — that when God's sword is furbished, there is not a trial in it, — that we shall be dealt well enough withal. But prepare yourselves; a trial it will be, a trial that will try all your carnal confidences, and consume them. It will try your profession of what sort it is; and if it be found false, will consume it also. It is to try all your graces to the utmost, — all your faith, all your trust, all your self-resignation, all your readiness to leave the things of the world and to part with them. It will be a trial, friends. Think what you will, it will be a trial. "Because it is a trial," saith He. It is strange there should be such stupidity upon us, that when the sword is furbished and made bright for the slaughter, and given into the hands of the slayer, we should not so much as think that it will be a trial, but make mirth. The reason is this, plainly, Because we have escaped former trials in the plague, and fire, and in the wrath of man. But saith the prophet, "This shall contemn every rod," — go beyond all those rods we have undergone, and despise them. You think it is a rod; but do not mistake; it shall contemn every rod, despise them, and will be a trial. You have had no trial; neither your confidence nor your grace has been tried: but this will be a trial. I do not believe these things are a vain divination.
Then what is our duty, if this be the posture of things with us? Why, that which we are come together for this day; which is to cry to God for mercy, in this day of darkness, of gloominess, this day of anguish, —
1. For the whole nation. Let us pray to God that, if it be his holy will, however he shall deal with the nation, he would call in the workmen that seem to be employed about building the furnace; for their faces are filled with dread and terror, and it argues dreadful work when God employs such workmen: beg of God to divert them, otherwise to employ them; beg of God to take them off, — that fierce, cruel men may not have the execution of God's judgments upon this poor land, — that God would take us yet into his own hands, — that men whose hearts are like the nethermost millstone, that grind with blood and revenge, may not have the trial of the land.
2. We may hope yet that the decree is not gone forth, and we may beg that God would not use these workmen. Now, if we should beg of God that he would yet cause the furnace to pass away, if we find it coming, and if we find our hearts enlarged to pray, and God bowing down his ear to hear, let us continue to ask further, not only that such and such may not be employed to fire the poor nation, but that God would even cause the furnace to pass away. Abraham began to pray to God: 'O Lord,' saith he, 'if there be fifty righteous in Sodom, wilt thou spare?' 'I will,' saith God, 'if there be fifty.' 'Lord,' saith he, 'if there be forty-five, wilt thou spare?' 'I will for forty-five,' saith God. 'Yet let me add, suppose there be forty?' 'I will spare for forty's sake.' Abraham found the infinite condescension of God to his prayer, and he asks no more by fives, but by tens: 'Wilt thou if there be thirty, twenty, ten, there?' Faith grew upon the Lord. If we find God answers our supplications for the removal of the workmen that are employed, that God would employ them elsewhere, and we have asked salvation in that, and a disappointment of others in their counsels, and find the Lord coming down, let faith come to ask by tens and tens, to bring it to the lowest degree. The utmost condescension of grace and mercy that will bear a consistency with the essential holiness and righteousness of God may be drawn out by faith and prayer. Then cry mightily unto the Lord, that, if it be his will, the furnace may depart from the nation.
3. If it be so determined that the furnace must be set up, and that we must all into the furnace, beg of God that we may have the lamp that belongs unto the covenant as well as the furnace. The furnace was all horror and smoke; but the lamp had a light in it. I take it from that of Abraham. When the furnace was a dark and smoking furnace, yet there was a lamp, a burning, shining light, that passed between the pieces of the sacrifice. That the dark, smoking furnace may not deprive us of the light of God's countenance in Christ, to support us in it and under it, beg of God that though we go into the furnace, yet we may have the lamp to direct us, to give us light in that horror of darkness, and in the smoking furnace.
Lastly, Who knows but that God may yet, by prayer, by the preaching of the word, by continual warnings, before the day comes, before the decree brings forth, before it be too late, make such a separation (for this is as far as ever I can go), that his people shall be put into the fining-pot, and not into the same furnace? Cry for that! It is your mercy to be in Zion's fining-pot rather than in the consuming furnace.
And, then, tremble to think that there seems to me no dispensation remaining but the oven, but that which shall consume, and leave neither root nor branch.
The substance of all is, brethren, that there is a woful and a wicked corruption and profaneness of life grown upon the generality of the nation, — that there is such an adherence to the world and the ways of the world among professors, that former means have not separated them from the world (for this separation from the world in outward worship, if it be all, signifies nothing), — that we seem all to be ready, unless God relieve in infinite mercy, to be brought into the same furnace; which is under a testimony of God's displeasure: 'Ye shall know that I have done it in anger, when I have brought you into the same furnace.' It is a great pledge of God's displeasure with us. Yet there is left room for faith and prayer to plead with God in all the particulars mentioned; — to deliver us from the hands of blood-thirsty men; to divert the judgment ('I repented me of the evil,' saith God); yea, to remove the furnace; yea, to make us meet for the fining-pot, or, however, to enjoy the lamp when we are in the furnace, — to enjoy light, direction, guidance, when we are in all confusion of darkness and in the smoking of the furnace.
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