Part 2: The Combat
“Then came to him the tempter, and said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones may be made bread” (v. 3).
Here begins this strange combat between our Savior Christ and the devil, consisting of three great conflicts: the first whereof is contained in this verse and the next, being indeed the greatest of them all, as after shall appear.
The first conflict: Matthew 4:3–4
In this temptation observe these three things: first, Satan’s preparation to this conflict; secondly, the temptation itself; thirdly, Christ’s answer and repulse made thereunto.
Point 1 The devil’s preparation is in these words:
“Then came to him the tempter, and said”
Herein observe four things.
First, the title given to Satan the author of this temptation, “the tempter”;
So Paul calls him, “I sent to know of your faith, lest the tempter had tempted you in any sort” (1 Thess. 3:5). Satan is called the “tempter,” because his continual study and practice has been and is, by all means to tempt all men; he omits no times, neither spares any pains day or night, but by all means seeks to draw men from God, and to bring them to destruction—the consideration whereof should move us to the practice of these duties.
First, to be watchful in all manner of prayers and supplication against Satan, for the gracious protection of God against his assaults. If any of us had our dwelling among lions, bears, or tigers, which were hunger-bit, and therefore would seek greedily for their prey, we would be sure never to go out of our dwelling houses, without preparation for rescue and defense, whereby we might avoid their danger. Well, though we have no such wild beasts to endanger our bodies, yet our souls are daily assaulted by a more deadly enemy, even the devil, whose continual study and practice is by temptation to devour us (1 Peter 5:8), and therefore we must always be watchful against temptations, putting upon us the whole armor of God, that we may be able to stand against his assaults.
Secondly, as it is the devil’s practice always to tempt, and to seek to draw men from God, so because we must be unlike him in all things, we must draw near to God in the practice of all good duties; “Resist the devil and he will flee; draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:7–8). The conjunction of these two duties shows, that the nearer we come to God, the more we oppose ourselves to Satan. Now “he that cometh unto God must believe” (Heb. 11:6), and therefore by faith we “exercise ourselves unto godliness,” as Paul exhorts Timothy [1 Tim. 4:7]; and unless we thus strive to be unlike him, we shall never be able to withstand his temptations.
Thirdly, we must hence learn to beware of the practice of seducers, in seeking to draw back others from the love or practice of religion, or in hindering the good means whereby religion is begun and furthered in men; for if either by endeavor in action, or by bad example we shall thus do, doubtless we become tempters, and the children of the devil. For to tempt and draw to sin is the property of Satan, and he that in tempting fulfills the “lust of Satan,” must needs be “his child” (John 8:44), hence it was, that our Savior Christ calls Peter “Satan,” when he went about to dissuade Him from that work for which His Father had sanctified Him and sent Him into this world, saying, “Get behind me Satan” (Matt. 16:23). And when Elymas sought to turn away the deputy from the faith, Paul calls him an “enemy to all righteousness, full of all subtilty,45 and child of the devil” (Acts 13:10).
The second thing in this preparation is, the time when Satan began to tempt our Savior Christ in a more strong and violent manner,
Noted in this word “then,” that is, when Christ had now fasted forty days and forty nights, and was a hungered. When the devil saw Christ not only to be alone in the wilderness, but also perceived that He was afflicted with hunger, and so the more weak being in the low estate of a miserable man, “then” he prepares to assault Christ with a most violent temptation.
This discovers unto us the deep policy of Satan in making choice of the fittest time for his assaults. He will not tempt all men at all times, neither always with the greatest temptations; but he forecasts for the time of man’s greatest weakness, and thereto he reserves his strongest assaults. Now usually a man is most weak when he is under some grievous affliction; either in body, mind, or both; or when he lies in the pangs of death. These times does Satan observe; and keeps his strongest temptations against they come, as does notably appear by his dealing with Christ, not only at this time when He was a hungered, but also and especially at His passion; for the Scripture says, “He spoiled principalities and powers” upon the cross [Col. 2:14–15], whereby is apparent that the devil with his greatest power did then assault Him, thinking either then or never to give Him the foil, when as He did sustain the wrath of God due unto the sins of man.
And so will he handle all the members of Christ; in their greatest extremities they shall be sure to feel Satan’s deepest malice, unless God restrains his power. Which must teach us in the day of peace and strength, to prepare against the day of weakness by any affliction or by death itself, that so we may by God’s grace be able to stand against the rage of Satan; for then he will be sure most eagerly to seek our ruin, and unless we prepare beforehand, we shall never be able to stand. Now our best preparation is to come to “hear the words of Christ and to do the same,” for then, “though the winds blow, the rain falls, the waves beat,” and Satan do his worst, yet being built upon the “rock” Christ Jesus, we shall never fall (Matt. 7:24–25).
The third thing in this preparation, is the occasion of Satan’s onset at this time, namely, Christ’s bodily hunger,
As the knitting of this verse to the former will plainly show, for Christ being a hungered, Satan came unto Him, and tempted Him. He could not find in Christ’s most holy manhood any blemish of sin, or inclination thereto whereon to build his temptation; yet such is his malice, that rather than Christ should escape his hands, he will take occasion from the infirmity of His nature in bodily hunger to provoke and allure Him unto sin.
Herein we learn a special point; namely, that the devil will have some ground in us for those temptations wherewith he does assault us; for as we may see by his dealing here with Christ, he observes not only the inclination of man’s heart and soul, but the state and constitution of the body, that if either body or mind will afford him the least advantage, thereon he will be sure to take occasion to tempt. If we regard the seed and root of sin, it is true that every man has all sins in him, but yet through the work of God, restraining corruption in some, and renewing grace in others, it comes to pass, that each man is more inclined naturally to some sins than to others, which thing Satan does observe most diligently. And as an enemy that besieges a city will go about it and spy where the wall is weakest and most fit for his entrance, and there will be sure to give his strongest onset; and as a man that would strike fire with a flint, will turn it about in his hand, to see what part is fittest; even so the devil, he goes about a man, and as it were turns him to and fro, to spy out his weakness, and to what sins he is most inclined, and there he will be sure to try him often, and to assault him with the greatest violence.
If a man be impatient of poverty, he will seek to carry him to picking and stealing; if a man be prone to covetousness, he will provoke him to fraud and oppression; if he be inclined to ambition, Satan will puff him up with pride and vainglory. Nay, which is far more, Satan will take occasion from the very constitution of a man’s body to draw him unto sin; if choler be predominant in him, Satan will labor to stir him up to wrath, anger, and fury, and if he can, to bloodshed and murder; if a man be of a sanguine complexion, Satan will seek to carry him to immoderate mirth, and to excess in pastimes, pleasures and delight, that if it be possible he may drown him therein, whether they be good or bad; if a man be melancholic, Satan will sometimes take occasion by that humor to strike him with exceeding sadness, with terrors and fears; and otherwhile to intoxicate his brain with strange fantasies and delusions, causing a man to think himself to be Elijah, John the Baptist, Christ, etc.
So as it is true which an ancient divine says of this humor, that it is the devil’s bait wherewith he sports himself. See the experience hereof in the lunatic person [Matt. 17:15], whose disease was, to be exceedingly troubled certain times of the month, by reason of melancholy oppressing the brain. Now Satan (as it there appears) took advantage of that humor to abuse him most fearfully, not only in making him deaf and dumb, but also causing him to cast himself into fire and water. So that look how many sins and infirmities we have in us, so many darts we carry about us, wherewith Satan will seek to wound us. He takes ground or occasion from us, of all the advantage he has against us; his temptations are like fire and bellows, and our infirmities and corruptions are wood and fuel.
Here then we may behold our miserable estate by reason of sin; for thereby it comes to pass that we bear about us those darts, wherewith the devil does wound us. And since Satan’s craft and malice is such to take advantage from us, for to work our woe, we must labor the more diligently, to be thoroughly acquainted with our natural dispositions and inclinations, yea with our bodily infirmities, for the devil will search us; and when we have truly found out our own estate, we must set a strong watch and guard about our own hearts in respect of our infirmities, and so shall we be the better able to break the neck of Satan’s temptations.
The fourth thing in this preparation is, Satan’s coming to Christ:
“The tempter came unto him.”
By which phrase it is probable, though not certain, that the devil took upon him the form of some creature, and so appeared unto Christ; thus he came to Eve in Paradise, abusing the serpent to further his assault against the first Adam. And it is likely, that in his combat with the second Adam, he came in the shape of some creature, for otherwise he could not properly be said to come and speak. Some indeed think that these temptations were inward in mind only, and by vision; others think they were altogether visible and done actually; but the safest way is to hold that they were in part actually done in bodily manner, and partly showed in vision. And thus much for the preparation to the conflict.
Point 2; The temptation itself, which contains matter of great importance, being indeed the main temptation of all, in these words:
“If thou be the Son of God command that these stones be made bread.”
The devil being well provided for time and place, and advantage also by Christ’s bodily hunger, does here assault our Savior Christ like a cunning sophister, and frames his argument syllogistically, thus: If Thou art the Son of God, Thou canst make these stones bread. But Thou canst not make these stones bread; therefore Thou art not the Son of God. The ground of this temptation is this: It is no reason that the Son of God should starve for want of food; but Thou must starve unless Thou canst make these stones bread. And therefore unless Thou canst do so, Thou mayest persuade Thyself it was but a false voice which Thou didst hear from heaven: “This is my well-beloved Son, etc.”
The scope and drift of Satan in this temptation stands in two things: first he labors to overthrow the faith of Christ; secondly, to bring Him to a practice of unbelief. For the first, by faith I mean, a gift or grace in Christ, whereby as He was man, He believed His Father’s words to be true, which said, “This is my well-beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Whereby we may see, what the devil aims at principally in his temptations against God’s children; for these his assaults against our Savior Christ are set down for our instruction in this behalf. Satan’s main drift then in temptation is to overthrow our faith, whereby we believe every part and parcel of God’s Word to be true: see this in his tempting of Eve; first he labors to weaken her faith in the truth of God’s threatening, which done, he easily brought her to actual disobedience in eating the forbidden fruit.
The same course he holds at this day; first he will seek to nuzzle men in ignorance, that he may keep them in unbelief. If he fails that way, then will he endeavor to plunge their souls into some damnable error and heresy; and by one of these means does he destroy the faith of many; for while a man remains in ignorance he can have no faith; and if he misses of the truth of God, he wants ground for his faith. Now the reason why the devil labors so much against our faith is, because we cannot truly rely upon God’s mercy, nor depend upon His providence, nor yield any acceptable obedience to His commandments, unless we believe His Word.
More particularly we are to observe that special branch of God’s Word which the devil would have Christ not to believe; even that voice of His Father, which a little before Christ heard from heaven at His baptism: “This is my well-beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” And this has the Holy Ghost recorded in great wisdom and mercy to God’s church; for hereby does appear a main drift of Satan against Christ’s members in his temptations, namely to make them doubt of their adoption, and to destroy this persuasion in them, that they are the sons and daughters of God; for if herein he spared not the Head, doubtless the members shall not escape his hands.
This appears by his usual assault against them, specially when God shall lay upon them any lingering cross or affliction, either in mind, in body, or in goods. Then the devil will suggest this into their minds: if you were the child of God, He would never lay His hand upon you so long a time and in so grievous a manner; never was any child of God in this case that you are in. But God lays His hand thus heavy on you; and therefore you may persuade yourself that you are not the child of God.
The consideration hereof must move us above all things to labor for assurance of our adoption, even to have our consciences assured out of God’s Word, that we are the sons and daughters of God in Christ. The devil’s drift is to overthrow this persuasion in us, and therefore our endeavor must be to confirm and settle our hearts herein.
This is the charge of the Holy Ghost upon every child of God: “Give all diligence to make your calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10), that is, get the assurance thereof sealed up in your hearts, by the comfortable fruition and practice of the saving graces of God’s Spirit, “joining virtue with your faith, and with your virtue knowledge, and with your knowledge temperance, and with temperance patience, and with patience godliness, and with godliness brotherly kindness, and with brotherly kindness love” (vv. 5–7). And indeed if we would have true peace and comfort in every estate whether adversity or prosperity, let us labor for the knowledge of our adoption.
This will be our joy in want, in wealth, in bondage, in freedom, in sickness, in health, in life and in death. Herein is that “joy of Christ which never can be taken from us” (John 16:22). We cannot do the devil a greater pleasure than to neglect the getting of this assurance; for hereupon he will take occasion (specially in time of distress) fearfully and dangerously to seek to break the neck of our souls; he cares not much otherwise what men profess, and what knowledge and other common gifts of the Spirit they have, so that they want this blessed assurance; and therefore with the apostle Paul, we must account all other things to be but “dross and dung in respect of this excellent knowledge of Christ” [Phil. 3:8], to be our Savior and Redeemer.
True it is, that unto many this exhortation will seem needless; for ignorant persons that have nothing in them but mere presumption, will brag most of this persuasion; but they that have felt the smart of temptation, do know what it is that will stand us in stead, even that assurance only which is rightly founded upon the Word of God; and therefore forsaking the vain conceits of our ignorance, let us with all diligence unfeignedly endeavor to get this resolution. If we cannot of ourselves attain unto it, we must use the direction and help of God’s faithful ministers; for howsoever it pleases some to think otherwise, yet this is the undoubted truth of God, that a man in this life may ordinarily be resolved and assured of his salvation.
The second thing which the devil aimed at in this temptation, was to bring Christ to a practice of unbelief,
Namely in want of bread to turn stones into bread, for the present satisfying of His hunger; for the devil would needs persuade our Savior Christ that He must have bread to save His life, and therefore in the want of bread would have brought Him to this distrustful course, to turn stones into bread.
And as the devil here deals with Christ, so he assays to do with all His members; as he labors to work unbelief in their hearts, so he seeks to bring them to the practice of unbelief in their lives. See the truth hereof in the course of the world; is a man oppressed with outward want and poverty? The devil will tell him, he must needs live, and therefore will persuade him to rob and steal and to filch for his living. If a man be sick, and want present help in lawful means, or else be afflicted somewhat extraordinarily, then will the devil move him to seek to wizards and witches, suggesting this into him by one means or other, that they can do more good in such a case than all the physicians in the world. This is a most vile practice of unbelief, and yet too common in the world, wherein men for the removal of some outward evil, will not stick to hazard the loss of their souls. We therefore must labor to be acquainted with these wiles of Satan, and by the practice of faith in our lives, labor to express the power of faith in our hearts, as in all manner of godly conversation, so especially in using only lawful means for our relief in the time of misery and distress.
But to come more particularly to the words of this temptation;
“If thou be the Son of God command these stones, etc.”
It may be demanded, why the devil should make choice of this question wherewith to tempt our Savior Christ, rather than any other? Answer. The reasons hereof may be these: first, he knew well, that if Christ were the true and proper Son of God, then He must needs be the true Messiah; and if He were that anointed of God, then also He it was that must accomplish that old and ancient promise made to our first parents “for the bruising of the serpent’s head” [Gen. 3:15]. This was the thing that of all other, the devil was most afraid of, and could not endure to hear; and therefore by moving this question he intends to infringe, yea and (if he could) quite overthrow our Savior Christ in the right of this title.
Secondly, the devil since his fall, bears an unspeakable deadly hatred against God Himself, and according to his nature, as occasion serves, he cannot but show the same. Now in this question he does notably bewray his malice and spite against God; for, whereas in Christ’s baptism a little before, God had proclaimed Him “to be his beloved Son in whom he was well pleased”; hereby the devil goes about to prove the clean contrary, and so as much as in him lies, seeks to make God a liar; which, because it fit his nature so well, he makes choice of at this time.
First, in this practice of the devil we may learn what to judge of sundry false teachers; for as well in the primitive church as also since that time, there have been sundry men of great fame for wisdom and learning, as Ebion, Cerinthus, Carpocrates, Samosatenus, and Arius, who have all labored severally to prove, that Jesus Christ the Son of Mary was not indeed the Son of God, very God, but only a worthy prophet. Now of them we may safely think with the church of God in former times, that they were false prophets, heretics and seducers, yea the professed enemies of Christ, guided by the spirit of Satan, for herein they do directly tread in his steps.
Secondly, in this his practice we may observe the malicious and contradicting spirit of Satan against God Himself, for here he labors to conclude that Christ was not the Son of God, notwithstanding God Himself had a little before avouched that He was. And this is his continued practice unto this day; for where God in His church pronounces grace, mercy and love, there on the contrary will the devil pronounce a curse, hatred, and damnation.
Again, where God denounces His curse and judgment, there will the devil seek to persuade a conceit of grace and favor. If a man be the child of God, and have received the seal of grace for his assurance thereof; the devil will seek to weaken this assurance, and persuade him if he can, that he is the child of wrath. And if a man be void of grace, and so indeed the child of the devil, then will Satan suggest into his heart presumptuous thoughts, and make him think he is the child of God; so that every way he shows himself contrary to God.
Yet mark the devil’s words a little further: “If thou be the Son of God, command these stones, etc.,” that is, do but say the word, and bid these stones to become bread, and it will be done. And here in the very propounding of this temptation we may observe the deep policy of Satan; for in these few words (the better to effect his purpose) he couches three most true and notable points in divinity: first, that He that is the Son of God by nature, is also true and very God; for here he ascribes unto the Son of God the true prerogative of God Himself; a point wherein the Pharisees withstood our Savior Christ, and which many heretics since have denied.
Secondly, that the true God can without pain or labor, yea without all means at His very beck do whatsoever He will; and by His word only make stones become bread.
Thirdly, that to work a miracle of Himself, is a property and prerogative of Him alone that is true God; as to turn stones into bread in this place. Now when the devil acknowledges all this, a man would not think that herein he should intend any hurt to Christ or to His church; but in very truth his drift herein is, to destroy the faith of Christ in that word of His Father which spoke from heaven, and to overthrow the foundation of the church, by proving that Jesus Christ the Son of Mary, was not true God.
Here then observe a trick of the devil’s cunning; when he speaks a truth, he does it not to confirm the same as loving it, but indeed his meaning is to overthrow the truth thereby: which must admonish us, that when Satan shall any way assault us in temptation, we never give credit unto him, no not then when he speaks the truth, because therein his purpose is to deceive us and to destroy the truth. Hence it was that Christ forbade the unclean spirits to testify of Him, though they acknowledge Him to “be the holy one of God” [Mark 1:24–25]; hence also Paul was grieved at the testimony of the foul spirit that was in the maid, though in itself a most worthy truth, to wit, “that they were the servants of the most high God which showed unto men the way of salvation” [Acts 16:17–18].
Further, in comparing our evangelist Matthew with Saint Luke, there may seem some difference between them in propounding this temptation, for in Matthew the words are thus, “command these stones, etc.” And in Luke thus, “command this stone” [Luke 4:3]. But they are reconciled thus; Mathew sets down this temptation as the devil first propounded it, and Saint Luke shows how the devil urged it; for first the devil comes to Christ, and bids Him, if He be the Son of God, command all the stones which He saw round about Him to be made bread, this Saint Matthew sets down; or if that seemed too much, command one stone to be made bread, and it should suffice, and this Saint Luke notes.
By this comparing of the evangelists we may observe that when the devil has once begun to tempt a man, he will not easily leave off, but will set an edge upon it, and enforce and urge it by all the means he can, that if it be possible it may persuade. Which should teach us on the other side, to be most earnest and resolute in resisting Satan’s temptations. He will take small advantage before he leaves; we therefore must not “give place” [Eph. 4:27], nor yield one jot unto him: “Resist the devil and he will flee” [James 4:7]. This must every member of the church do; the minister by sound and thorough applying of every part of God’s truth to the heart, whereby it may be armed against the enemy; and the people by faithful embracing and obeying of the same, as also by earnest prayer unto God for the assistance of His grace in all assaults.
“But he answering, said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (v. 4) [Deut. 8:3].
These words contain Christ’s gracious answer, whereby He repelled the devil’s temptations; and in it we may observe three points; first, that Christ did answer; secondly, whence He borrowed His answer; thirdly, the very words of His answer.
For the first, that Christ did answer, is noted by the Holy Ghost in plain words, “And Jesus answering, said”; whereby He would give us to understand, that Christ Jesus our Savior being in the wilderness, was not only willing and ready to encounter with Satan, but also able to withstand him, yea and to vanquish Satan without receiving any foil at his hands. Which is a point of singular comfort to God’s church and children; for was Christ Jesus able in this low and base estate of a servant, being disadvantaged also by a desert place and bodily hunger, was He then (I say) able to encounter with Satan and to overcome him in his most violent and subtle assaults? Then how much more is He now able even in all His members to give Satan the foil, having spoiled him in His death; seeing He is advanced to the throne of majesty and glory, and set at the right hand of His Father, having a name above all names given unto Him, at which every knee should bow, both of things in heaven and in earth and under the earth? We therefore may now say with that loud voice: “Now is salvation in heaven, and strength, and power, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of the brethren is cast down” [Rev. 12:10].
The second point here noted is, whence Christ borrows His answer, namely, from the Scriptures,
“It is written.”
It had been an easy thing for Christ being the Son of God, to have confounded the tempter with the breath of His mouth, or to have commanded innumerable legions of holy angels to have driven him away; but He betakes Himself to the written Word for His defense. And this He did especially for our instruction; namely, that we might know, that the written Word of God, rightly wielded by the hand of faith, is the most sufficient weapon for the repelling of Satan and the vanquishing him in all his temptations; hence Paul calls it “the sword of the spirit” [Eph. 6:17], because it serves not only for our defense, but also to wound Satan, and to put him to flight.
First, this fact of Christ does discover and condemn the damnable practice of the Church of Rome, who lock up the Word of God from their people in an unknown tongue, and commend unto them for their defense against spiritual enemies other devices of their own, as holy water, crossing, crosses, etc., which they highly commend as means of special strength and force to vanquish the devil; when as indeed the Word of God is the only true and trusty weapon, whereof while they deprive their people, they send them forth naked and unarmed to encounter with Satan.
Secondly, here also behold the miserable estate of all those that either through covetousness or any other profaneness are drawn to neglect or condemn the written Word of God: their case is most fearful; for they cast away those weapons whereby they should defend themselves against the devil, and quench all his fiery darts, and so betray their own souls into his hands. And doubtless all condemners and neglecters of the Word are guilty of their own damnation, because God has given us His Word for our defense, and for the confounding of Satan, so as without guilt of willful murder not of our bodies, but of our souls, we cannot neglect this heavenly weapon.
Thirdly, hereby we may see the cause why sin so much abounds in all estates everywhere, namely, want of love unto, and knowledge in the Word of God, whereupon the most are ignorant of it, or else know not how to handle this spiritual weapon, whereby Satan is resisted and foiled. The Lord complains of “lying, swearing, killing, stealing, and whoring, yea of blood touching blood” (Hos. 4:2); and the cause is laid down in the first verse, “There is no knowledge of God in the land.” This David knew well, and therefore said, “He hid God’s sayings in his heart, that he might not sin against him” (Ps. 119:11). For as Saul’s spear stood in readiness at his head even when “he slept” [1 Sam. 26:7], so should God’s Word, which is the “sword of the Spirit,” be ever in our hearts, as it were ready drawn, that to what sin soever the devil allures us, we may be able to say for our defense, “It is written”; through want hereof it comes to pass that the devil at his pleasure leads men captives into all impieties.
Lastly, this excellent use of the Word understood, believed, and obeyed must move all ignorant persons to labor for knowledge herein, and with all endeavor after growth in knowledge, by holy obedience, to show forth their faith. If we had an enemy that had sworn our death and vowed to see our blood, how careful would we be, for our natural life, both to get us weapons, and also some knowledge to use the same, not only for our defense, but also for the annoyance of our deadly foe? Oh then how careful should we be for the safety of our souls to put upon us the whole armor of God, and to learn to use aright “this sword of the Spirit,” that when we meet with Satan our irreconcilable enemy, in the field of temptation, which is this miserable world, we may be able both to award his blows, and to wound his head! It is lamentable to see how ignorant people will bless themselves in their ignorance, and say they defy the devil, and spit at him in defiance, and yet they know not how they are entangled in his snares of their own sins. He little regards such defiance so long as their souls lie naked and bare before his deadly darts.
Let two men meet that be at enmity, the one armed, the other naked, what will it avail for the naked man to defy his enemy with big words, while in the meantime his armed enemy takes away his life? Lo, Satan is this strong man armed, and ignorant persons are poor naked caitiffs, they defy the devil and spit at him with their mouth, but in the meantime the devil wounds their souls unto death. They will say they feel no such wounds, and therefore they fear him not. But they must know, that the less they feel, the more cause they have to fear; for Satan’s wounds are most deadly when they are least felt.
The third point is, Christ’s answer itself,
“Man shall not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God”
This answer is borrowed from Deuteronomy 8:3. And it is that lesson which Moses sought to teach the children of Israel after the Lord had fed them with food from heaven in that barren wilderness where they were afflicted with hunger. The words are something hard, and therefore I will show the meaning of them. “Man shall not live”; that is, shall not preserve his temporal life in this world; for of eternal life, neither Moses nor Christ did intend to speak. “By bread only,” that is, only by such ordinary means as food and raiment, sleep, physic, etc., which God has appointed in His providence for the ordinary preservation of natural life. “But by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”
This title “word” betokens divers things in Scripture. First, the substantial Word of God, the second person in Trinity, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was God” (John 1:1). Secondly, it is usually taken for the written Word contained in the books of the Old and New Testaments (1 Peter 1:25). Thirdly, it is sometimes taken for God’s will and decree, and it is called His “good pleasure” [Eph. 1:9]: so “Christ sustaineth all things by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:2), that is, according to His will and decree, by His powerful appointment. And by His word were all things made in the beginning and hereby have they been preserved ever since; that is that word that melts the ice (Ps. 147:18). And in the last sense must we understand “word” in this place; meaning that man does not preserve this natural life by ordinary means only, but withal, by God’s good pleasure, will and decree, sanctifying the means for his good. Note further that it is said “by every word,” and therein lies the substance of this sentence; for the understanding whereof we must know, that this powerful and working Word of God may be distinguished according to the matter whereabout it is occupied.
Thus, sometimes God will have men to live by bread the ordinary food of natural life; and this is His ordinary word. Sometimes His will and appointment is that man shall live by extraordinary means; as the Israelites did in the wilderness while they lived upon manna; and this is His extraordinary word. Other times He ordains that man shall live without all means, as Moses did in Mount Sinai, Elijah in Mount Horeb, and our Savior Christ in this wilderness for the space of forty days and forty nights together; and lastly He ordains sometimes, that man shall live against means and contrary to the course of nature; thus Daniel lived in the lions’ den, and the three children in the fiery furnace; both which last may be called God’s miraculous word. So that we see good reason of this clause “every,” for hereby we learn, that man does not preserve his life only by ordinary means ordained of God; but likewise by “every word proceeding out of the mouth of God,” that is, by every appointment and decree of God, whether extraordinary, above the usual means, or miraculous without all means, or against the course of nature.
This we must labor to know and be persuaded of. Nature teaches that man lives by God’s blessing and appointment in ordinary means, but nature knows not this, that God preserves man’s life by His Word, above means, without means, yea and against means. The believing heart will hardly yield to this, which Moses would teach the Israelites; and therefore we must take the more pains to be resolved of it. If any shall think hereupon, that a man may live by the written Word without meat and drink, he is deceived; for Christ means not that every word that God has spoken shall preserve natural life, but that whatsoever way He has appointed whereby man shall live, whether by ordinary or extraordinary means, whether without means or against means, the same shall be effectual for man’s preservation: thus much for the meaning.
The applying of this testimony to the devil’s temptation is thus to be conceived. The devil’s temptation was this: If Thou be the Son of God, then command these stones to be made bread. But Thou canst not make these stones to become bread; therefore Thou art not the Son of God. To this Christ answers, by denying the proposition or first part of this argument; the ground whereof was this (which the devil took for granted), that when a man is hungry he must needs have bread or else he cannot live. This our Savior does flatly deny, saying, “Man liveth not by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” And this application is most excellent, teaching us that thing, for the learning whereof the Israelites were trained up to forty years in the wilderness, and fed with manna from heaven, and with water out of the rock; to wit, that God by His Word can preserve the life of man without ordinary means even what way soever He appoints for that purpose; and if we should spend our lives in learning hereof, no doubt the time were not misspent.
First, hereby we are taught to consider aright of all creatures whereby our life is preserved, as meat, drink, apparel, etc., and that is thus: besides the bodily sustenance of the creature, we must labor to see a further matter, even the blessing of God in the creature proceeding from His word, decree and appointment, whereby it is made fit and able to yield sustenance and nourishment. The Scripture calls this the “staff of bread” [Lev. 26:26], and so it is indeed, for as an aged and impotent man falls to the ground if his staff be plucked from him, so the best creature that serves for our use, without God’s blessing becomes fruitless unto us. This, reason may teach us, for how should that thing of itself preserve and further life, which in itself is void of life? And how should that give heat and warmness to our bodies, which of itself is void of heat?
Let us therefore confess that it is not the substance of food that does refresh us, nor the matter of our raiment that keeps us warm, but the blessing of Him that by His word has ordained them for these ends. If He withdraws His blessing, the “staff and stay is gone” [Isa. 3:1]; men may “eat” (as Haggai says) but they shall not have “enough”; they may “drink,” and yet not be “filled”; they may “clothe” themselves, and not be “warm” [Hag. 1:6]. It is God’s blessing that makes God’s creatures do us good: how else should it come to pass, that the poor man’s child which is barely clad, and homely fed, should be as healthy, comely, and well liking as the child of a prince, but that God blesses as well the homely food of the poor, as the dainty fare of the richest.
Secondly, hereby we must learn sobriety and temperance, in the use of all God’s creatures. When we use our food and raiment it is God’s blessing alone that makes them do us good, the Lord as it were stands by us to put His blessing upon every morsel that we eat, and every draught that we drink, and upon our raiment when we put it on; how then dare we abuse them in surfeiting and drunkenness, in pride and wantonness? May we not fear in so doing that while the meat or drink is in our mouths, the wrath of God will fall upon us (Ps. 78:30–31)?
Thirdly, hence we must learn to sanctify God’s creatures as food and raiment which we use for our comfort, by invocation on the name of God. For we do not live by the creatures simply, but by the word and appointment of God blessing them unto us; and therefore we must not be like brute beasts which receive God’s blessings, but yet never look up to heaven from whence they come; or like to the swine that gathers up the mast, not looking up to the tree from which it falls.
Fourthly, hereby we see the common error of the world, who place the staff and stay of their life in the abundance of outward blessings, whereupon they labor to enrich themselves herewith as much as possibly they can; these men do little consider that man’s life stands not in abundance, neither does he live by bread, but by the blessing of God, which is and may be as well upon a little, as upon the treasures of a kingdom. This was the practice of the “rich fool,” who spoke peace to his soul for “ease and pastime,” because “he had much goods laid up for many years” [Luke 12:19]. But since Christ teaches us that man lives not by bread only, it must needs be a flat note of unbelief, to cark and care immoderately for the things of this life.
Fifthly, hereby we are also taught not to entangle ourselves overmuch with the cares of this world, nor to suffer our hearts to be oppressed with desire of food, raiment, lands or living, because our life and welfare consist not in these things, but in the blessing of God on whatsoever He sends be it more or less. The gripple mind after much is a deadly “snare” [1 Tim. 6:9], wherewith many a soul is entangled to perdition and destruction; this chokes the heart in such sort as the seed of grace can take no root nor bring forth any saving fruit. This made Paul to lay a charge upon Timothy for rich men, that “they should trust in the living God and not in uncertain riches” (1 Tim. 6:17).
Let us therefore be content with food and raiment, and rather seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and then all those things whereof we stand in need shall be given unto us in the moderate use of lawful means. Indeed the worldling’s excuse is that food and raiment is his living, which he must needs look unto, but we must still remember that our life stands not in these things, for when death comes, these cannot save us from the grave. It is God’s blessing by which we live, He can preserve us above means, nay without means, and against means, and therefore we must never give place to such thoughts and cares as show distrust in God.
Sixthly, hence we must learn contentation and patience in extreme poverty and in all other miseries of this life. If God should deal with us as He did with His servant Job: if for our religion He should bring upon us the loss of goods, of children, of health and all that we have, with banishment also from our friends and country, yet then must we labor to show the fruit of patience, and not suffer our hearts to be swallowed up of overmuch grief, because our life stands by God’s word, and not in any of these things. Indeed, if in these outward miseries a man should be deprived of the comfort of God’s providence, then might he sorrow without measure, but seeing all such as fear God do still enjoy the blessing of God in their greatest calamities (for God’s blessing is not locked up in bread, but above means, without means and against means can He manifest His power and goodness in their preservation), therefore in the extremity of evil must we comfort ourselves in “the Lord our God,” as David did “in great sorrow,” having lost his two wives and being in danger to be stoned of his own followers [1 Sam. 30:6], and learn to say with Job, “Though the Lord kill me yet will I trust in him” [Job 13:15].
What if the Lord should send a famine among us, as He may justly do for the sins of this land? Should we then despair or use unlawful means for our relief? Nay, then we must learn Moses’ lesson, “that man liveth not by bread only,” and labor to depend on Him that can increase “the oil in the poor widow’s cruse, and the meal in the barrels” [1 Kings 17:14], till plenty comes.
Seventhly, this must teach us moderation of our affections in all estates that do befall us; in health and plenty we must not be puffed up with pride; in weakness and in want we must not be oppressed with sorrow. For man’s life stands not in these things, neither can we hereby know love or hatred; he that is in want may have as good a portion in God’s blessing as the wealthiest man in the world. Herein hungry Lazarus full of sores, went far beyond the rich glutton in all his riot [Luke 16:19–20].
Lastly, seeing our life depends upon God’s word, we must hereby learn to acknowledge God’s providence, and to rely thereupon in all estates. In the days of peace, wherein (as Job speaks of himself) “men wash their paths in butter, and have the rocks to pour them out rivers of oil” [Job 29:6], men will soon be brought to say so much. But we must labor to see and feel the blessing of His providence even then when we tread (as it were) the winepress of His wrath; as well in sickness as in health; in want as in plenty; in the depth of distress as in the height of all prosperity.
This is the counsel of the Holy Ghost, “Roll thy works upon the Lord” [Prov. 16:3]; “Cast all your care upon him, for he careth for you” (1 Peter 5:7). It is a brutish property only to look upon the creatures whereon they feed, and therefore our eyes and our hearts must be fixed on Him who “feedeth the young ravens that cry unto him” [Job 38:4], and “beareth up all things by his mighty word” [Heb. 1:3]. We must not content ourselves with a bare speculation hereof in our heads, but labor to feel the comfort of it in our hearts, and to express the power of it in our lives. And thus much for the first conflict.
William Perkins, 2014, 1, 104–120.