Such was David's high estimation of the testimonies of his God, that his spirits were consumed with vehement grief in witnessing their neglect. He could bear that his enemies should forget him; but his zeal could not endure, that they should forget the words of his God. Zeal is a passion, whose real character must be determined by the objects on which it is employed, and the principle by which it is directed. There is a true and a false zeal, differing as widely from each other, as an heavenly flame from the infernal fire. The one is fervent, unselfish affection, expanding the heart, and delighting to unite with the whole empire of God in the pursuit of a good, which all may enjoy without envious rivalry. The other is a selfish, interested principle, contracting the heart, and ready to sacrifice the good of mankind, and even the glory of God, to its own individual advantage. Were its power proportioned to its native tendency, or were it to operate extensively in an associated body, it would end in detaching its several members each from their proper center; in disuniting them from each other; and, as far as its influence could reach, crumbling the moral system into discordant atoms. Too often does this baneful principle exemplify itself in the Church—either in an obstinate opposition to the truth of the gospel, or in a self-willed contention for its own party."This wisdom descends not from above: but it is earthly, sensual, devilish." How much also of that misguided heat, that spends itself upon the externals of religion, or would "call fire down from heaven" in defense of fundamental truths, may be found among us, exposing its blind devotees to our Master's tender rebuke, "You know not what manner of spirit you are of!"
Often also do we see a distempered, counterfeit zeal, disproportioned in its exercise, wasting its strength upon the subordinate parts of the system, and comparatively feeble in its maintenance of the vital doctrines of Christ. Thus it disunites the Church by adherence to points of difference, instead of compacting the Church together by strengthening the more important points of agreement. Often again, by the same process in practical religion, are the "mint, anise, and cummin," vehemently contended for; "while the weightier matters o£ the law" are little regarded.
Widely different from this fervor of selfishness is that genuine zeal, which marks the true disciple of our Lord. Enlightened by the word of God, and quickened into operation by the love of Christ, it both shines and warms at the same moment. It is indeed the kindled fire of heavenly love, exciting the most heavenly desires and constant efforts for the best interests of every child of man, so far as its sphere can reach; and bounded only by a consistent regard to the general welfare of the whole. Thus earnest and compassionate in its influence, awakened to a sense of the preciousness of immortal souls, and the overwhelming importance of eternity, it is never at a loss to discover an extended sphere for its most vehement and constraining exercises. While it hates the sins that pass on every side before its view, it is all gentleness to the sinner; and would gladly weep tears of blood over those who are deaf to the voice of persuasion, could such tears avail to turn them from their iniquity. But, knowing all human unassisted efforts to be insufficient, it gives to the world its protest against the abominations, which it is too feeble to prevent; and then hastens to the secret chamber to pour out its wrestling desires in the tenderness of our Master's intercession, "Father, forgive them! for they know not what they do."
Such was the zeal of the ancient Lawgiver, whose spirit, though, as it regarded his own cause, "meek above all the men which were upon the face of the earth," "waxed hot" on witnessing the grievous dishonor done to his God during his absence on the mount. At the same time (as if most clearly to distinguish the holy burning from the heat of his own spirit) how fervently did he plead his people's cause in secret before his God, as he had manifested his concern for the honor of his God before the congregation! Surely he could have taken up this language—My zeal has consumed me; because my enemies have forgotten Your words. Burning with the same holy flame, the great Old-Testament Reformer bore his testimony against the universal prevalence of idolatry; making use of the arm of temporal power, and of the yet greater power of secret complaint, to stem the torrent of iniquity. The same impulse in later times marked the conduct of the Apostles: when, "rending their clothes, and running in among" a frantic multitude of idolaters, by all the power of their entreaties "they were scarcely able to restrain the people, that they had not done sacrifice unto them." On another occasion the great Apostle, forgetting "the goodly stones and buildings" that met his eye at Athens—found "his spirit stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry." In another city "was he pressed in spirit" by the intensity of his interest for the souls of his fellow-sinners and his Master's work.
Yet this is not a heat that wastes itself without a proportionate object. The truth of God is the grand object. Not one atom of its dust shall be lost. For its fundamentals all consequences must be hazarded—yes, life itself—if need be—sacrificed. Nor does this fervor expend itself in strong impulses that wear out without fruit. It is a constant affection in "a good thing." Nor is it an undisciplined burst of warm feeling, but a sober controlled exercise of Christian judgment. The Apostle—with his inexpressible abhorrence of idolatry—yet remained in the midst of it for two, perhaps three, years, faithfully employed in his Master's work; yet waiting for the fittest time of open protest against Diana's worship. So admirably was "the spirit of power and love" disciplined by "the spirit of a sound mind."
But, "compassed about, as we are, with so great a cloud of witnesses," let us yet turn aside to look unto One greater than them all—to One, whose example in every temper of Christian conduct affords equal direction and encouragement. Jesus could testify to His Father, "The zeal of Your house has eaten Me up." He was ever ready to put aside even lawful engagements and obligations, when they interfered with this paramount demand. Yet was His zeal tempered with a careful restraint from needless offence. Rather would He work a miracle, and retreat from publicity, than seem to give occasion to those that might desire it. And if we bear the stamp of His disciples, without rushing into offence in the waywardness of our own spirits, and while rejoicing to have our own "names cast out as evil," we shall at the same time be tender of any reflection on the name of our God, as on our dearest friend and benefactor. We shall feel any slight of His honor as sensitively as a wound to our own reputation; nor shall we hesitate to thrust ourselves between, to receive on ourselves any strokes that may be aimed at His cause. This combined spirit of self-denial and self-devotedness kindles the flame, which "many waters cannot quench, neither can the floods drown." 'I could bear'—said holy Brainerd—'any desertion or spiritual conflict, if I could but have my heart burning all the while within me with love to God, and desire for His glory.' It is indeed a delightful exercise to "spend and be spent" in the service of Him, who for our sakes was even consumed by the fire of His own zeal.
However, the surest evidence of Christian zeal is, when it begins at home, in a narrow scrutiny, and "vehement revenge" against the sins of our own hearts. Do we mourn over our own forgetfulness of God's words? Are we zealous to redeem the loss to our Savior's cause from this sinful neglect? And do we plainly show, that our opposition to sin in the ungodly is the opposition of love? And is this love manifested to the persons and souls of those, whose doctrines and practice we are constrained to resist, and in a careful restraint from the use of unhallowed "carnal weapons" in this spiritual "warfare?"
Perhaps the weak, timid child of God may be saying, 'I can do nothing for my God. I allow His words to be forgotten, with little or no success in my efforts to prevent it.' Are you then making an effort? Every work done in faith bears fruit to God and to His church. You may not see it. But let your secret chamber witness to your zeal: and the Lord "will not be unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love." He will even strengthen you for your dreaded conflict in the open confession of His cause, "For He has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty." Or, should peculiar trials restrain the boldness of your profession, you may be found in the end to have made as effectual a resistance to the progress of sin by your intercession before God, as those who have shown a more open front in the face of the world.
In the last two verses David spoke concerning his God and his law; here he speaks of himself, and says, "My zeal has consumed me, because my enemies have forgotten your words": this was no doubt occasioned by his having so clear a sense of the admirable character of God's word. His zeal was like a fire burning within his soul. The sight of man's forgetfulness of God acted as a fierce blast to excite the fire to a more vehement flame, and it blazed until it was ready to consume him. David could not bear that men should forget God's words. He was ready to forget himself, ay, to consume himself, because these men forgot God. The ungodly were David's enemies: his enemies, because they hated him for his godliness; his enemies, because he abhorred them for their ungodliness. These men had gone so far in iniquity, that they not only violated and neglected the commands of God, but they appeared actually to have forgotten them. This put David into a great heat; he burned with indignation. How dare they trample on sacred things! How could they utterly ignore the commands of God himself! He was astonished, and filled with holy anger.
Have we not some who profess to be Christians, who know the truth, but live as if they had forgotten it?