Plowing the Rock
“Shall horses run upon the rock? will one plow there with oxen?”—Amos 6:12.
THESE expressions are proverbs, taken from the familiar sayings of the east country. A proverb is generally a sword with two edges, or, if I may so say, it has many edges, or is all edge, and hence it may be turned this way and that way, and every part of it will have force and point. A proverb has often many meanings, and you cannot always tell what was the precise meaning of him who uttered it. The connection would abundantly tolerate two senses in this place. An ancient commentator asserts that it has seven meanings, and that any one of them would be consistent with the context. I cannot deny the assertion, and if it be correct it is only one among many instances of the manifold wisdom of the Word of God. Like those curiously carved Chinese balls in which there is one ball within another, so in many a holy text there is sense within sense, teaching within teaching, and each one worthy of the Spirit of God.
The first sense of the text upon which I would say just a word or two is this: the prophet is expostulating with ungodly men upon their pursuit of happiness where it never can be found. They were endeavoring to grow rich and great and strong by oppression. The prophet says, “Ye have turned judgment into gall, and the fruit of righteousness into hemlock.” Justice was bought and sold among them, and the book of the law was made the instrument of fraud. “Yet,” says the prophet, “there is no gain to be gotten this way—no real profit, no true happiness. As well may horses run upon a rock, and oxen plow the sand: it is labour in vain.”
If any of you try to content yourselves with this world, and hope to find a heaven in the midst of your business and your family without looking upward for it, you labour in vain. If you hope to find pleasure in sin, and think that it will go well with you if you despise the law of God, you will make a great mistake. You might as well seek for roses in the grottoes of the sea, or look for pearls on the pavements of the city. You will find what your soul requires nowhere but in God.
To seek after happiness in evil deeds is to plow a rock of granite. To labour after true prosperity by dishonest means is as useless as to till the sandy shore. “Wherefore do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which satisfieth not?” Young man, you are killing yourself with ambition; you seek your own honour and emolument, and this is a poor, poor object for an immortal soul. And you, too, sir, are wearing out your life with care; your mind and body both fail you in endeavoring to amass riches, as if a man’s life consisted in the abundance of the things which he possesses: you are plowing a rock; your cares will not bring you joy of heart or content of spirit; your toil will end in failure.
And you, too, who labour to weave a righteousness by your works apart from Christ, and fancy that with the diligent use of outward ceremonies you may be able to do the work of the Holy Spirit upon your own heart, you, too, are plowing thankless rock. The strength of fallen nature exerted at its utmost can never save a soul. Why, then, plow the rock any longer? Give up the foolish task.
So far, I believe, we have not misread the text, but have mentioned a very probable meaning of the words; still, another strikes me, which I think equally suitable, and upon it I shall dwell, by God’s help.
It is this. God will not always send his ministers to call men to repentance. When men’s hearts remain obdurate, and they do not and will not repent, then God will not always deal with them in mercy. “My Spirit shall not always strive with man.” There is a time of plowing, but when it is evident that the heart is wilfully hardened, then wisdom itself suggests to mercy that she should give up her efforts. “Shall horses run upon the rock? will one plow there with oxen?” No, there is a limit to the efforts of kindness, and in fulness of time the labour ceases, and the rock remains unplowed henceforth and forever.
I. Taking that sense, we shall speak upon it, and remark, first, that MINISTERS LABOUR TO BREAK UP MEN’S HEARTS:
The wise preacher tries by the power of the Holy Ghost to break up the hard clods of the heart, so that it may receive the heavenly seed.
Many truths are used like sharp plowshares to break up the heart. Men must be made to feel that they have sinned, and they must be led to repent of sin. They must receive Christ, not with the head only, but with the heart; for with the heart man believeth unto righteousness. There must be emotion: we must cut into the heart with the plowshare of the law. A farmer who is too tender-hearted to tear up and harrow the land will never see a harvest.
Here is the failing of certain divines, they are afraid of hurting anyone’s feelings, and so they keep clear of all the truths which are likely to excite fear or grief. They have not a sharp plowshare on their premises and are never likely to have a stack in their rickyard. They angle without hooks for fear of hurting the fish, and fire without bullets out of respect to the feelings of the birds. This kind of love is real cruelty to men’s souls. It is much the same as if a surgeon should permit a patient to die because he would not pain him with the lancet, or by the necessary removal of a limb. It is a terrible tenderness which leaves men to sink into hell rather than distress their minds. It is pleasant to prophesy smooth things, but woe unto the man who thus degrades himself.
Is this the spirit of Christ? Did he conceal the sinner’s peril? Did he cast doubts upon the unquenchable fire and the undying worm? Did he lull souls into slumber by smooth strains of flattery? Nay, but with honest love and anxious concern he warned men of the wrath to come, and bade them repent or perish. Let the servant of the Lord Jesus in this thing follow his Master, and plow deep with a sharp plowshare, which will not be balked by the hardest clods. This we must school ourselves to do. If we really love the souls of men, let us prove it by honest speech.
The hard heart must be broken, or it will still refuse the Saviour who was sent to bind up the broken-hearted. There are some things which men may or may not have, and yet may be saved; but those things which go with the plowing of the heart are indispensable; there must be a holy fear and a humble trembling before God, there must be an acknowledgment of guilt and a penitent petition for mercy; there must, in a word, be a thorough plowing of the soul before we can expect the seed to bring forth fruit.
II. But the text indicates to us that AT TIMES MINISTERS LABOUR IN VAIN.
“Shall horses run upon the rock? will one plow there with oxen?” In a short time a plowman feels whether the plow will go or not, and so does the minister. He may use the very same words in one place which he has used in another, but he feels in the one place great joy and hopefulness in preaching, while with another audience he has heavy work, and little hope. The plow in the last case seems to jump out of the furrow; and a bit of the share is broken off now and then. He says to himself, “I do not know how it is, but I do not get on at this,” and he finds that his Master has sent him to work upon a particularly heavy soil.
All labourers for Christ know that this is occasionally the case. You must have found it so in a Sunday-school class, or in a cottage meeting, or in any other gathering where you have tried to teach and preach Jesus. You have said to yourself every now and then, “Now I am plowing a rock. Before, I turned up rich mold which a yoke of oxen might plow with ease, and a horse might even run at the work; but now the horse may tug, and the oxen may wearily toil till they gall their shoulders, but they cannot cut a furrow; the rock is stubborn to the last degree.”
There are such hearers in all congregations. They are as iron, and yet they are side by side with a fine plot of ground.
Their sister, their brother, their son, their daughter, all these have readily felt the power of the gospel; but they do not feel it. They hear it respectfully; and they so far allow it free course that they permit it to go in at one ear and out at the other, but they will have nothing more to do with it. They would not like to be Sabbath-breakers and stop away from worship; they, therefore, do the gospel the questionable compliment of coming where it is preached and then refusing to regard it. They are hard, hard, hard bits of rock, the plow does not touch them.
Many, on the other hand, are equally hard; but it is in another way. The impression made by the word is not deep or permanent. They receive it with joy, but they do not retain it. They listen with attention, but it never comes to practice with them. They hear about repentance, but they never repent. They hear about faith, but they never believe. They are good judges of what the gospel is, and yet they have never accepted it for themselves. They will not eat; but still they insist that good bread shall be put on the table. They are great sticklers for the very things which they personally reject. They are moved to feeling; they shed tears occasionally, but still their hearts are not really broken up by the word. They go their way, and forget what manner of men they are. They are rocky-hearted through and through: all our attempts to plow them are failures.
Now this is all the worse, because certain of these rocky-hearted people have been plowed for years, and have become harder instead of softer. Once or twice plowing, and a broken share or two, and a disappointed plowman or two, we might not mind, if they would yield at last; but these have since their childhood known the gospel and never given way before its power. It is a good while since their childhood now with some of them. Their hair is turning grey, and they themselves are getting feeble with years. They have been entreated and persuaded times beyond number, but labour has been lost upon them. In fact, they used to feel the word, in a certain fashion, far more years ago than they do now. The sun, which softens wax, hardens clay, and the same gospel which has brought others to tenderness and repentance has exercised a contrary effect upon them, and made them more careless about divine things than they were in their youth. This is a mournful state of things, is it not?
Why are certain men so extremely rocky? Some are so from a peculiar stolidity of nature. There are many people in the world whom you cannot very well move, they have a great deal of granite in their constitution, and are more nearly related to Mr. Obstinate than to Mr. Pliable.
Now, I do not think badly of these people, because one knows what it is to preach to an excitable people, and to get them all stirred, and to know that in the end they are none the better; whereas some of the more solid and immovable people when they are, moved are moved indeed; when they do feel they feel intensely, and they retain any impression that is made. A little chip made in granite by very hard blows will abide there, while the lashing of water, which is easy enough, will leave no trace even for a moment. It is a grand thing to get hold of a fine piece of rock and to exercise faith about it. The Lord’s own hammer has mighty power to break, and in the breaking great glory comes to the Most High.
Worse still, certain men are hard because of their infidelity—not heart-infidelity all of it, but an infidelity which springs out of a desire not to believe, which has helped them to discover difficulties. These difficulties exist, and were meant to exist, for there would be no room for faith if everything were as plain as the nose on one’s face. These persons have gradually come to doubt, or to think that they doubt, essential truths, and this renders them impervious to the gospel of Christ.
A much more numerous body are orthodox enough, but hard-hearted for all that. Worldliness hardens a man in every way. It often dries up all charity to the poor, because the man must make money, and he thinks that the poor-rates are sufficient excuse for neglecting the offices of charity. He has no time to think of the next world; he must spend all his thoughts upon the present one. Money is tight, and therefore he must hold it tight; and when money brings in little interest he finds therein a reason for being the more niggardly. He has no time for prayer, he must get down to the counting-house. He has no time for reading his Bible, his ledger wants him. You may knock at his door, but his heart is not at home; it is in the counting-house, wherein he lives and moves and has his being. His god is his gold, his bliss is his business, his all in all is himself. What is the use of preaching to him? As well may horses run upon a rock, or oxen drag a plow across a field sheeted with iron a mile thick.
With some, too, there is a hardness, produced by what I might almost call the opposite of stern worldliness, namely, a general levity. They are naturally butterflies flitting about and doing nothing. They never think, or want to think. Half a thought exhausts them, and they must needs be diverted, or their feeble minds will utterly weary. They live in a round of amusement. To them the world is a stage, and all the men and women only players. It is of little use to preach to them: there is no depth of earth in their superficial nature; beneath a sprinkling of shifting, worthless sand lies an impenetrable rock of utter stupidity and senselessness. I might thus multiply reasons why some are harder than others, but it is a well assured fact that they are so, and there I leave the matter.
I shall now ask everybody to judge whether the running of horses upon a rock, and the plowing there with oxen, shall always be continued.
III. I assert that IT IS UNREASONABLE TO EXPECT THAT GOD’S SERVANTS SHOULD ALWAYS CONTINUE TO LABOUR IN VAIN.
These people have been preached to, taught, instructed, admonished, expostulated with, and advised; shall this unrecompensed work be always performed? We have given them a fair trial; what do reason and prudence say? Are we bound to persevere till we are worn out by this unsuccessful work? We will ask it of men who plow their own farms; do they recommend perseverance when failure is certain? Shall horses run upon the rock? Shall one plow there with oxen? Surely not forever.
I think we shall all agree that labour in vain cannot be continued forever if we consider the plowman. He does not want to be much considered; but still his Master does not overlook him. See how weary he grows when the work discourages him. He goes to his Master with, “Who hath believed our report, and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?” “Why hast thou sent me,” says he, “to a people that have ears but hear not? They sit as thy people sit, and they hear as thy people hear, and then they go their way and they forget every word that is spoken, and they obey not the voice of the Lord.” See how disappointed the preacher becomes. It is always hard work when you appear to get no forwarder, although you do your utmost.
No man, whoever he may be, likes to be set upon work which appears to be altogether a waste of time and effort. To his own mind it seems to have a touch of the ridiculous about it, and he fears that he will be despised of his fellows for aiming at the impossible. Shall it always be the lot of God’s ministers to be trifled with? Will the great Husbandman bid his plowmen spill their lives for naught? Must his preachers continue to cast pearls before swine? If the consecrated workers are so bidden by their Lord they will persevere in their painful task; but their Master is considerate of them, and I ask you also to consider whether it is reasonable to expect a zealous heart to be forever occupied with the salvation of those who never respond to its anxiety? Shall the horses always plow upon the rock? Shall the oxen always labour there?
Again, there is the Master to be considered. The Lord—is he always to be resisted and provoked? Many of you have had eternal life set before you as the result of believing in Jesus, and you have refused to believe. It is a wonder that my Lord has not said to me, “You have done your duty with them; never set Christ before them again; my Son shall not be insulted.” If you offer a beggar in the street a shilling and he will not have it, you cheerfully put it into your purse and go your way; you do not entreat him to have his wants relieved. But, behold, our God in mercy begs sinners to come to him, and implores them to accept his Son. In his condescension he even stands like a salesman in the market, crying, “Ho, everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” In another place he says of himself, “All day long have I stretched out my hands to a disobedient and gainsaying generation.”
If the Lord of mercy has been refused so long in the sight of you who reverence him, does not some indignation mingle with your pity, and while you love sinners and would have them saved, do you not feel in your heart that there must be an end to such insulting behavior? I ask even the careless to think of the matter in this light, and if they do not respect the plowman, yet let them have regard to his Master.
And then, again, there are so many other people who are needing the gospel, and who would receive it if they had it, that it would seem to be wise to leave off wearying oneself about those who despise it. What did our Lord say? He said that if the mighty things which had been done in Bethsaida and Chorazin had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented. What is more wonderful still, he says that if he had wrought the same miracles in Sodom and Gomorrah which were wrought in Capernaum, they would have repented in sackcloth and ashes. Does it not occur to us at once to give the word to those who will have it, and leave the despisers to perish in their own wilfulness?
Does not reason say, “Let us send this medicine where there are sick people who will value it”? Thousands of people are willing to hear the gospel. See how they crowd wherever the preacher goes—how they tread upon one another in their anxiety to listen to him; and if these people who hear him every day will not receive his message, “in God’s name,” saith he, “let me go where there is a probability of finding soil that can be plowed.” “Shall horses run upon the rock? Will one plough there with oxen?” Must I work always where nothing comes of it? Does not reason say, let the word go to China, to Hindustan, or to the utmost parts of the earth, where they will receive it; for those who have it preached in the corners of their streets despise it?
I shall not lengthen this argument, but shall solemnly put the question again. Would any of you continue to pursue an object when it has proved to be hopeless? Do you wonder that when the Lord has sent his servants to speak kind, gracious, tender words, and men have not heard, he says to them, “They are joined unto their idols; let them alone”? There is a boundary to the patience of men, and we soon arrive at it; and assuredly there is a limit, though it is long before we outrun it, to the patience of God, “At length,” he says, “it is enough. My Spirit shall no longer strive with them.” If the Lord says this, can any of us complain? Is not this the way of wisdom? Does not prudence itself dictate it? Any thoughtful mind will say, “Ay, ay, a rock cannot be plowed forever.”
IV. Fourthly. THERE MUST BE AN ALTERATION, then, and that speedily.
The oxen shall be taken off from such toil. It can be easily done, and done soon. It can be effected in three ways.
First, the unprofitable hearer can be removed so that he shall no more hear the gospel from the lips of his best approved minister. There is a preacher who has some sort of power over him; but as he rejects his testimony, and remains impenitent, the man shall be removed to another town, where he shall hear monotonous discourses which will not touch his conscience. He shall go where he shall be no longer persuaded and entreated; and there he will sleep himself into hell. That may be readily enough done; perhaps some of you are making arrangements even now for your own removal from the field of hope.
Another way is to take away the plowman. He has done his work as best he could, and he shall be released from his hopeless task. He is weary. Let him go home. The soil would not break up, but he could not help that; let him have his wage. He has broken his plow at the work; let him go home and hear his Lord say, “Well done.” He was willing to keep on at the disheartening labour as long as his Master bade him; but it is evidently useless, therefore let him go home, for his work is done. He has been sore sick, let him die, and enter into his rest. This is by no means improbable.
Or, there may happen something else. The Lord may say, “That piece of rock shall never trouble the plowman anymore. I will take it away.” And he may take it away in this fashion: the man who has heard the gospel, but rejected it, will die. I pray my Master that he will not suffer any one of you to die in your sins, for then we cannot reach you anymore, or indulge the faintest hope for you. No prayers of ours can follow you into eternity. There is one name by which you may be saved, and that name is sounded in your ears—the name of Jesus; but if you reject him now, even that name will not save you. If you do not take Jesus to be your Saviour he will appear as your judge. I pray you, do not destroy your own souls by continuing to be obstinate against almighty love.
God grant that some better thing may happen. Can nothing else be done? This soil is rock; can we not sow it without breaking it? No. Without repentance there is no remission of sin. But is there not a way of saving men without the grace of God? The Lord Jesus did not say so; but he said, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned.” He did not hint at a middle course or hold out a “larger hope,” but he declared, “He that believeth not shall be damned,” and so he must be. Dream not of a back door to heaven, for the Lord has provided none.
What then? Shall the preacher continue his fruitless toil? If there is only half a hope left him, he is willing to go on and say, “Hear, ye deaf, and see, ye blind, and live, ye dead.” He will even so speak this day, for his Master bids him preach the gospel to every creature; but it will be hard work to repeat the word of exhortation for years to those who will not hear it.
Happily, there is one other turn which affairs may take. There is a God in heaven, let us pray to him to put forth his power. Jesus is at his side, let us invoke his interposition. The Holy Ghost is almighty, let us call for his aid. Brothers who plow and sisters who pray, cry to the Master for help. The horse and the ox evidently fail, but there remains One above who is able to work great marvels. Did he not once speak to the rock, and turn the flint into a stream of water? Let us pray him to do the same now.
And, oh, if there is one who feels and mourns that his heart is like a piece of rock, I am glad he feels it; for he who feels that his heart is a rock gives some evidence that the flint is being transformed. O rock, instead of smiting thee, as Moses smote the rock in the wilderness and erred therein, I would speak to thee. O rock, wouldst thou become like wax? O rock, wouldst thou dissolve into rivers of repentance? Hearken to God’s voice! O rock, break with good desire! O rock, dissolve with longing after Christ, for God is working upon thee now. Who knows but at this very moment thou shalt begin to crumble down. Dost thou feel the power of the Word? Does the sharp plowshare touch thee just now? Break and break again, till by contrition thou art dissolved, for then will the good seed of the gospel come to thee, and thou shalt receive it into thy bosom, and we shall all behold the fruit thereof.
And so I will fling one more handful of good corn, and have done. If thou desirest eternal life, trust Jesus Christ, and thou art saved at once. “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth,” says Christ, “for I am God, and beside me there is none else.” He that believeth in him hath everlasting life. “Like as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
O Lord, break up the rock, and let the seed drop in among its broken substance, and get thou a harvest from the dissolved granite, at this time, for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
C. H. Spurgeon, Farm Sermons, (New York: Passmore and Alabaster, 1882), 101–116.