God’s Greatness And Man’s Greatness

BY FREDERICK W. ROBERTSON

For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit . . . (Isaiah 57:15).

THE ORIGIN OF this announcement from God to Israel seems to have been the state of contempt in which religion found itself in the days of Isaiah. One of the most profligate monarchs who ever disgraced the page of sacred history sat on the throne of Judah. His court was filled with men who recommended themselves chiefly by their licentiousness.

The altar was forsaken. Sacrilegious hands had placed the abominations of heathenism in the Holy Place. And piety–banished from the state, the church, and the royal court–was once more as she had
been before, and will be again: a wanderer on the face of the earth.

Now, however easy it may be to contemplate such a state of things at a distance, it never takes place in a man’s own day and time without suggesting painful perplexities of a twofold nature. In the first
place, it raises suspicions respecting God’s character, and, in the second place, misgivings as to one’s own duty. For a faithless heart whispers, Is it worthwhile to suffer for a sinking cause? Honor,
preferment, and grandeur follow in the train of unscrupulous conduct. To be strict in goodness is to be pointed at and shunned. To be no better than one’s neighbors is the only way of being at peace.

It seems to have been to such a state as this that Isaiah was commissioned to bring light. He vindicated God’s character by saying that He is “the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity.” He encouraged those who were trodden down to persevere by reminding them that real dignity is something very different from present success. God dwells with him “that is of a contrite and humble spirit.”

With that in mind, let us consider two points:

God’s greatness
Man’s greatness

God’s Greatness Relating to Time

The first measurement, so to speak, that is given us of God’s greatness, is in respect to time. He inhabits eternity. There are some subjects on which it would be good to dwell if only for the sake of the enlargement of mind that is produced by their contemplation. Eternity is one of these. You cannot steadily fix the thoughts upon it without being sensible of a peculiar kind of elevation at the same time
you are humbled by a personal feeling of utter insignificance.

You have come in contact with something so immeasurable beyond the narrow range of our common speculations–that you are exalted by the very conception of it. Now, the only way we have of forming any idea of eternity is by going, step by step, up to the largest measures of time we know of, and so ascending, on and on, till we are lost in wonder. We cannot grasp eternity, but we can learn something of it by perceiving that whatever portion of time we consider, eternity is vaster than the vastest.

We take up, for instance, the history of England. When we have spent months mastering the mere outline of those great events which, in the slow course of revolving centuries, have made England what she is, her earlier ages seem so far removed from our own times that they appear to belong to a hoary and most remote antiquity.

But then, when you compare those times with even the existing works of man, and when you remember that when England was yet young in civilization the pyramids of Egypt were already grey with 1500 years, you are impressed with a double amount of vastness. Double that period, and you come to the far distant moment when the present aspect of this world was called, by creation, out of the formless void.

Modern science has raised us to a pinnacle of thought beyond even this. It has commanded us to think of countless ages in which that formless void existed before it put on the aspect of its present creation.

The mind is lost in dwelling in such thoughts as these. When you have penetrated far, far back by successive approximations, and still see the illimitable distance receding before you as distant as before,
imagination absolutely gives way, and you feel dizzy and bewildered with new strange thoughts that have not a name.

But this is only one aspect of the case. It looks only to time past. The same overpowering calculations wait us when we bend our eyes on that which is to come. Time stretches back immeasurable, but it also
stretches on and on forever.

Now, it is by such a conception as this that the inspired prophet attempts to measure the immeasurable of God. All that eternity, magnificent as it is, never was without an Inhabitant. Eternity means nothing by itself It merely expresses the existence of the High and Lofty One that inhabited it.

We make a fanciful distinction between eternity and time there is no real distinction. We are in eternity at this moment (that has begun to be with us which never began with God). Our only measure of time is
by the succession of ideas. If ideas flow fast, and many sights and many thoughts pass by us, time seems lengthened. If we have the simple routine of a few engagements, the same every day, with little variety,
the years roll by us so fast that we cannot mark them.

It is not so with God. There is no succession of ideas with Him. Every possible idea is present with Him now. It was present with Him 10,000 years ago. God’s dwelling place is that eternity which has
neither past nor future. It is one vast, immeasurable present.

God’s Greatness Relating to Space

There is a second measure of God given us in this verse. It is in the respect of space. He dwells in the high and lofty place. He dwells, moreover, in the most insignificant place–even the heart of man. And
the idea by which the prophet would here exhibit to us the greatness of God, is that of His eternal omnipresence.

It is difficult to say which conception carries with it the greatest exaltation–that of boundless space or that of unbounded time. When we pass from the tame and narrow scenery of our own country, and
stand on those spots of earth in which nature puts on her wilder and more awful forms, we are conscious of something of the grandeur that belongs to the thought of space.

Go where the strong foundations of the earth lie around you in their massive majesty, and mountain after mountain rears its snow to heaven in a giant chain. When this scene bursts upon you for the first
time, there is that peculiar feeling which we call, in common language, an enlargement of ideas.

But then we are told that the sublimity of those dizzy heights is but a nameless speck in comparison with the globe of which they form the girdle. We think of that globe itself as a minute spot in the mighty system to which it belongs, so that if our world were annihilated, its loss would not be felt. And we are told that 80,000,000 of such systems roll in the world of space, to which our own system again is as nothing.

When we are again pressed with the recollection that beyond those furthest limits creative power is exerted immeasurably further that eye can reach or thought can penetrate; then, brethren, the awe that comes upon the heart is only, after all, a tribute to a portion of God’s greatness.

Yet we do not need science to teach us this. It is a thought that oppresses very childhood–the overpowering thought of space. A child can put his head on his hands and think and think until he reaches in imagination some far distant barrier of the universe, and still the difficulty presents itself to his young mind, “And what is beyond that barrier?” The only answer is “The high and lofty place.”

And this, brethren, is the inward seal with which God has stamped Himself upon man’s heart. If every other trace of Deity has been expunged by the fall, these two at least defy destruction–the thought
of Eternal Time and the thought of Immeasurable Space.

God’s Greatness Relating to Holiness

The third measure of God that is given us respects His character. His name is Holy. The chief idea that this would convey to us is separation from evil. Brethren, there is perhaps a time drawing near
when those of us who will stand at His right hand, purified from all evil taint, will be able to comprehend absolutely what is meant by the holiness of God.

At present, with hearts cleaving to earth, and tossed by a thousand gusts of unholy passion, we can only form a dim conception relatively of what holiness implies. None but the pure can understand purity. The chief knowledge that we have of God’s holiness comes from our acquaintance with unholiness. We know what impurity is–God is not that. We know what injustice is-God is not that.

We know what restlessness, guilt, and passion are. Deceitfulness, pride, waywardness all these we know. God is none of these. And this is our chief acquaintance with His character. We know what God is not. We scarcely can be rightly said to know, that is to feel, what God is. Therefore, this is implied in the very name of holiness. Holiness in the Jewish sense means simply separateness. From all that is wrong and
mean and base, our God is forever separate.

There is another way God gives us a conception of what this holiness implies. Tell us of His justice, His truth, His loving kindness. All these are cold abstractions. They convey no distinct idea of themselves to our hearts. What we want was that these should be exhibited to us in tangible reality.

This is just what God has done. He has exhibited all these attributes, not in the light of speculation, but in the light of facts. He has given us His own character in all its delicacy of coloring in the history of Christ. Love, mercy, tenderness, purity–these are no mere names when we see them brought out in the human actions of our Master.

Holiness is only a shadow of our minds until it receives shape and substance in the life of Christ. All this character of holiness is intelligible to us in Christ. “No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son . . . of the Father, he hath declared him” (John 1:18).

There is a third light in which God’s holiness is shown to us, and that is in the sternness with which He recoils from guilt. Because Christ died for man, I know what God’s love means. Because Jesus wept
human tears over Jerusalem, I know what God’s compassion means. Because the stern denunciations of Jesus rang in the Pharisees’ ears, I can comprehend what God’s indignation is. Because Jesus stood calm before His murderers, I have a conception of what serenity is.

Brethren, revelation opens to us a scene beyond the grave, when this will be exhibited in full operation. There will be an everlasting banishment from God’s presence of that impurity on which the last
efforts have been tried in vain. It will be a carrying out of this sentence by a law that cannot be reversed–“Depart from me, ye cursed” (Matt. 25:41).

But it is quite a mistake to suppose that this is only a matter of revelation. We have traces of it now on this side the sepulchre. Human life is full of God’s recoil from sin. In the writings of a heart that has been made to possess its own iniquities in the dark spot that guilt leaves upon the conscience, rising up at times in a man’s happiest moments, as if it will not come out it is there. In the restlessness and the feverishness that follow the efforts of the man who has indulged habits of sin too long–in all these there is a law repelling wickedness from the presence of the Most High–which proclaims that God is holy.

Brethren, it is in these that the greatness of God consists-Eternal in Time–Unlimited in Space Unchangeable and Pure in character. His serenity and His vastness arise from His own perfections.

Now let’s consider, in the second place, the greatness of man.

The nature of that greatness.
The persons who are great.

Man’s Greatness: Habitation of Deity

Our text brings before us, in this one fact, that man has been made a habitation of the Deity: “I dwell with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit.” At the very outset, this is the distinction between
what is great in God and what is great in man.

To be independent of everything in the universe is God’s glory, and to be independent is man’s shame. All that God has, He has from Himself–all that man has, he has from God. The moment man cuts himself off from God, he cuts himself off from all true grandeur.

There are two things implied when Scripture says that God dwells with man. The first is that peculiar presence that He has conferred on the members of His church.

Brethren, we do not presume to define what that presence is and how it dwells within us–we are content to leave it as a mystery. But this we know: Something of a very peculiar and supernatural character
takes place in the heart of every man on whom the gospel has been brought to bear with power.

“Know ye not,” said the apostle Paul, “that your bodies are the temples of the Holy Ghost” (cf. 1 Cor. 6:19). And again in the epistle to the Ephesians, “In Christ ye are builded for an habitation of God
through the Spirit” (cf. 2:22). There is something in these expressions that refuses to be explained away. They leave us but one conclusion, that in all those who have become Christ’s by faith, God personally and locally has taken up His dwelling place.

There is a second meaning attached in Scripture to the expression “God dwells in man.” According to the first meaning, we understand this expression in the most plain and literal sense the words are capable of
conveying. According to the second, we understand His dwelling in a figurative sense, implying that He gives an acquaintance with Himself to man.

For instance, when Judas asked, “Lord, how is it, that thou wilt manifest thyself unto us and not unto the world?” Our Redeemer’s reply was this, “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will
love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him” (John 14:22, 23).

In the question it was asked how God would manifest Himself to His servants. In the answer it was shown how He would make His abode with them. And if the answer be any reply to the question at all, what follows is this–that God making His abode or dwelling in the heart is exactly the same thing as God’s manifesting Himself to the heart.

Brethren, in these two things the greatness of man consists. One is to have God so dwelling in us as to impart His character to us; the other is to have God so dwelling in us that we recognize His presence
and know that we are His and He is ours. They are two things perfectly distinct. To have God in us, this is salvation; to know that God is in us, this is assurance.

Man’s Greatness: Examples

Lastly, we inquire as to the persons who are truly great. These the Holy Scripture has divided into two classes–those who are humble and those who are contrite in heart. Or rather, it will be observed
that it is the same class of character under different circumstances. Humbleness is the frame of mind of those who are in a state of innocence; contrition, of those who are in a state of repentant guilt.

Brethren, do not let the expression “innocence” be misunderstood. Innocence, in its true and highest sense, never existed but once on this earth. Innocence cannot be the religion of man now.

Our text describes those with whom God dwells as the humble in heart. Two things are required for this state of mind. One is that a man should have a true estimate of God, and the other is that he should
have a true estimate of himself.

Vain, blind man places himself on a little corner of this planet, a speck upon a speck of the universe, and begins to form conclusions from the small fraction of God’s government he can perceive.

The astronomer looks at the laws of motion and forgets that there must have been a First Cause to commence that motion. The surgeon looks at the materialism of his own frame and forgets that matter cannot organize itself into exquisite beauty. The metaphysician buries himself in the laws of the mind and forgets that there may be spiritual influences producing all those laws.

All this, brethren, is the unhumbled spirit of philosophy–intellectual pride. Men look at nature, but they do not look through it up to nature’s God. There is an awful ignorance of God, arising from indulged sin, which produces an unhumbled heart. God may be shut out from the soul by pride of intellect or by pride of heart.

Pharaoh is presented in Scripture as a type of pride. His pride arose from ignorance of God. “Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice? I know not the Lord, neither will I let Israel go” (Ex. 5:2). This was not intellectual pride; it was a pride in a matter of duty.

Pharaoh had been immersing his whole heart in the narrow politics of Egypt. The great problem of his day was to aggrandize his own people and prevent an insurrection of the Israelites. That small kingdom of Egypt had been his universe.

Pharoah shut his heart to the voice of justice and the voice of humanity. In other words, he was great in pride of human majesty but small in the sight of the high and lofty One. He shut himself out from
the knowledge of God.

The next ingredient of humbleness is that a man must have a right estimate of himself. There is a vast amount of self-deception on this point. We say of ourselves what others would not. A man truly humbled would take it only as his due when others treated him in the way that he says that he deserves.

But my brethren, we kneel in our closets in shame for what we are, and we tell our God that the lowest place is too good for us. Then we go into the world, and if we meet with slight or disrespect, or if
our opinion is ignored, or if another is preferred before us, there is all the anguish of a galled and jealous spirit.

Half the bitterness of our lives comes from this, that we are smarting from what we call the wrongs and the neglect of men. Brethren, if we saw ourselves as God sees us, we would be willing to go anywhere,
to be silent when others speak, to be passed by in the world’s crowd, and thrust aside to make way for others.

We should be willing to give credit to others for what we might have received praise ourselves. This was the attitude of our Master–this is the meek and quiet spirit, and this is the attitude of the humble with whom the high and lofty One dwells.

The other class of those who are truly great are the contrite in spirit. At first sight it might be supposed that there must ever be a vast distinction between the innocent and the penitent. This is what the elder son in the parable thought when he saw his brother restored to his father’s favor. He was surprised and hurt. He had served his father these many years–his brother had wasted his substance in riotous living.

In this passage God makes no distinction. He places the humble, consistent follower and the broken-hearted sinner on the same level. He dwells with both the one who is contrite and the one who is humble. He sheds around them both the grandeur of His own presence.

The annals of church history are full of examples of this marvel of God’s grace. By the transforming grace of Christ, men who have done the very work of Satan have become as conspicuous in the service of
heaven as they were once in the career of guilt.

So indisputably has this been so, that men have drawn from such instances the perverted conclusion that if a man is ever to be a great saint, he must first be a great sinner. God forbid, brethren, that we should ever make such an inference. But this we infer for our own encouragement: past sin does not necessarily preclude us from high attainments.

We must “forget the things that are behind.” We must not mourn over past years of folly as if they made saintliness impossible. Deep as we may have been once in earthliness, so deep we may also be in
penitence, and so high we may become in spirituality.

We have so few years to do our work! Let us try to do it so much faster. Christ can crowd the work of years into hours. He did it with the dying thief. If the man who has set out early may take his time, it
certainly cannot be so with us who have lost our time.

If we, in the past, have lost God’s bright and happy presence by our rebellion, what then? Unrelieved sadness? Nay, brethren. Calmness and purity, may have gone from our heart, but all is not gone yet. Just as sweetness comes from the bark of the cinnamon when it is bruised, so the spirit of the cross of Christ, bring beauty and holiness and peace out of the bruised and broken heart. God dwells with the contrite as much as with the humble.

Conclusion

To conclude, the first inference we collect from this subject is the danger of coming into collision with such a God as our God. Day by day we commit sins of thought and word which the dull eye of man takes
no notice. Yet, He whose name is Holy cannot pass them by.

We may elude the vigilance of a human enemy and place ourselves beyond his reach. But God fills all space there is not a spot in which His piercing eye is not on us and His uplifted hand cannot find us out.

Man must strike soon if he would strike at all, for opportunities pass away from him, and his victim may escape his vengeance by death. There is no passing of opportunity with God, and it is this which makes
His longsuffering a solemn thing. God can wait, for He has a whole eternity before Him in which He may strike. “All things are naked and opened unto the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13).

In the next place, we are taught the heavenly character of condescension. It is not from the insignificance of man that God’s dwelling with him is so strange. It is as much the glory of God to bend His attention on an atom as to uphold the universe.

But the marvel is that the habitation He has chosen for Himself is an impure one. And when He came down from His magnificence to make this world His home, still the same character of condescension was shown through all the life of Christ. Our God selected the society of the outcasts of earth, those whom none else would speak to.

Brethren, if we would be Godlike, we must follow in the same steps. Our temptation is to do exactly the opposite. We are forever hoping to obtain the friendship and the intimacy of those above us in the world, to win over men of influence to truth–to associate with men of talent, station, and title. This is the world-chase, and this is too much the religious man’s chase.

But if you look simply to the question of resemblance to God, then look to the man who makes it a habit to select that one in life to do good to or that one in a room to speak with, whom others pass by because there is nothing either of intellect or power or name to recommend him, but only humbleness. That man has stamped upon his heart more of heavenly similitude by condescension than the man who has made
it his business to win this world’s great ones, even for the sake of truth.

Lastly, we learn the guilt of two things of which this world is full–vanity and pride. There is a distinction between these two. But the distinction consists in this: The vain man looks for the admiration of others; the proud man requires nothing but his own.

Now, it is this distinction that makes vanity despicable to us all. We can easily find out the vain man–we soon discover what it is he wants to be observed, whether it be a gift of person, or a gift of mind, or a gift of character. If he is vain of his person, his attitudes will tell the tale. If he is vain of his judgment or his
memory or his honesty, he cannot help an unnecessary parade. The world finds him out, and this is why vanity is ever looked on with contempt.

As soon as we let men see that we are suppliants for their admiration, we are at their mercy. We have given them the privilege of feeling that they are above us. We have invited them to spurn us. And
therefore vanity is but a thing for scorn.

It is very different with pride. No man can look down on him that is proud, for he has asked no man for anything. They are forced to feel respect for pride, because it is thoroughly independent of them. It
wraps itself up in the consequence of its own excellences, and it scorns to care whether others take note of them or not.

It is just here that the danger lies. We have exalted a sin into a virtue. No man will acknowledge that he is vain, but almost any man will acknowledge that he is proud. But tried by the balance of the
sanctuary, there is little to choose between the two. If a man look for greatness outside of God, it matters little whether he seeks it in his own applause or in that of others.

The proud Pharisee, who trusted in himself that he was righteous, was condemned by Christ as severely, and even more, than the vain Jews who could not believe because they sought honor from one another, and not that honor which comes from God only.

It may be a more dazzling and splendid sin to be proud. It is not less hateful in God’s sight. Let us speak God’s word to our own unquiet, swelling, burning hearts. Pride may disguise itself as it will in its own majesty, but in the presence of the high and lofty One, it is but littleness after all.

Frederick W. Robertson (1816-1853) wanted to be a soldier, but he yielded to his father’s decision that he take orders in the Anglican church. The courage that he would have shown on the battlefield, he  displayed in the pulpit, where he fearlessly declared truth as he saw it. Never strong physically, he experienced deep depression; he questioned his faith, and he often wondered if his ministry was doing
any good. He died a young man, in great pain, but in great faith and courage. He had ministered for only 6 years at Trinity Chapel, Brighton, but today his printed sermons have taken his brave message around the world. This one is from his Sermons, Third Series, published in 1900 in London by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Company.

THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS TAKEN FROM CLASSIC SERMONS ON THE ATTRIBUTES OF
GOD AND PUBLISHED BY HENDRICKSON PUBLISHERS, INC., BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT WITH AND PERMISSION OF KREGEL PUBLICATIONS, 1989, PAGES 96-109. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.

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