Rescue the Pershing

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Proverbs 24:11-12

Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not requite man according to his work?

Proverbs 24:11-12, RSV

CARING INTERVENTION

“Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.” These words from the Old Testament Book of Proverbs have often arrested my attention. They come up suddenly, with no introduction. They sound a ringing challenge to intervene on behalf of endangered people.

About the precise background of this charge, we can only conjecture. Perhaps the writer has in view victims of kidnapping or assault. A malicious enemy is carrying someone off, like a lion dragging its prey. Or perhaps an innocent person has been condemned and is now being led away to be executed. Maybe an angry mob is about to do violence to someone who has courageously defended an unpopular cause. What ought any person witnessing such a scene to do? For love’s sake, says the Proverb, do something! Do what you can to rescue those about to perish.

Next, the command is: “hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.” That seems to have a slightly different situation in view. Here are people headed for destruction on their own. A drunken man teeters toward a precipice. A young girl is about to risk her whole future for one exciting drug trip. A boy on the streets is poised to take his first step on a path of violent crime. Everything is hanging in the balance for them. What should a caring friend do? The answer seems obvious: intervene, seek by all means to restrain them from their head-long plunge.

Any time when human beings are in danger of perishing, either through the hostility of foes or their own folly, we have a clear calling from God. If it’s possible for us to do anything about it, the word is: “rescue them, hold them back.”

In such cases, when we’re aware of someone’s peril but do nothing, yet plead ignorance as an excuse, this word follows:

If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not requite man according to his work?

Nothing, you see, is plainer in the Bible than this: God knows what we know and don’t know, what we attend to and ignore, what we look for or block from awareness. He keeps watch over our consciousness and holds us accountable for the light we have and what we do with it. Knowledge is one key. “He who knows to do good and does it not,” says the Scripture, “to him it is sin” (James 4:17). Power is another. “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,” says the proverb, “when it is in your power to do it” (Prov. 3:27). Awareness and ability combined always make us accountable.

I try to visualize what that means today for people like us. If there are poor ones desperately hungry and we know about it and have for ourselves much more than we need, we’re accountable. If millions of babies are being destroyed by abortion and maimed by child abuse and I have the power to vote, to report, to protest, I am accountable. What do I do, what do you do, to rescue those who are about to perish?

PROPHETIC WARNING

But there’s another peril to which human beings are exposed, more dreadful than any of these we’ve thought about: God’s judgment. What responsibility do we have to rescue people from this, to hold them back from condemnation? Listen to this word from God to His prophet Ezekiel:

Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, “You shall surely die,” and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you will have saved your life (Ezek. 3:17-19).

The prophets of the Lord are His appointed watchmen. They are like sentries on the wall of a city, stationed to alert the inhabitants to approaching danger. But the prophet’s task is not so much to look as to listen. He is to be attentive to God’s voice. Whenever God sends forth a warning of impending judgment, the prophet is in turn to alert the people.

God’s word to the wicked is: “You shall surely die.” That’s more than a reminder of the mortality we all share. It is that, but it goes far beyond it. The wicked man is in danger of dying in his iniquity, dying in his rebellion and estrangement from God, and that is a terrible thing.

Now in a case like that, the prophet cannot directly rescue those who are perishing. He cannot compel them to turn toward God, nor can he repent on their behalf. They are responsible before God for their own sin and unbelief. But the watchman himself has a heavy responsibility. He is to hear the Word from God’s mouth and give the people warning from Him. His is the simple task of a messenger. He hears a word from God about certain judgment and then proclaims it to the people. He is God’s spokesman, God’s herald. He warns them, urges them, pleads with them from God. He seeks to rescue, to restrain, by faithfully delivering a message.

Once more, it’s a matter of knowledge and capacity. The prophet hears God’s Word; he sees the need and peril of those to whom the Word is addressed, and he has the opportunity to communicate with them. For that, he is strictly accountable. Listen again:

If I say to the wicked, “You shall surely die,” and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.

What an awesome charge that is! The prophet is not answerable for what the people do with God’s message, but he is required to see that they hear it. If they hear it and refuse to heed, the prophet’s heart may be broken, but his life is preserved. He has fulfilled his mission. He has done what he could.

But if he doesn’t warn the people, if he doesn’t convey the message delivered to him, he faces a fearful prospect. Those wicked people whom he should have warned will perish in their iniquity. But listen to this: God will hold the prophet responsible! He had a warning to convey and he kept silent about it. He had a charge to keep and he refused. He’s like a watchman on the wall, there for one purpose: to warn a sleepy citizenry of approaching danger. Yet even when the enemy is at the gates, he says nothing. What regard can he have for God, when he leaves the divine Word unspoken? What care can he have for his fellow human beings when he lets them perish unwarned? When they die in their sins, God holds him accountable for their doom. He had a chance to rescue the perishing, to hold back those stumbling to the slaughter, but he simply looked on and did nothing.

GOSPEL INVITATION

The New Testament picks up this same language and applies it to preachers of the gospel. Once when the apostle Paul was preaching to a crowd in the city of Corinth, they kept on opposing and reviling him. They refused to receive his testimony that Jesus was God’s anointed One, the Savior of the world. Finally Paul shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be upon your heads. I am innocent” (Acts 18:6). The shaking of the garments was like shaking off the dust of one’s feet. It meant that the bearer of God’s message had discharged his responsibility. He had done what he could. If his hearers continued in stubborn unbelief, if they rejected God’s overtures to the last, they would perish in their sins, but they would have no one to blame but themselves. Their blood, as the apostle put it, would be upon their own heads.

Later, when Paul opened his heart to beloved elders in the city of Ephesus, he used similar language. Listen:

I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance to God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ… Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:20-21, 26-27).

Paul knows himself to be standing in that prophetic tradition. He too has been summoned by the Most High to be a watchman and a herald. He too bears the most weighty responsibility imaginable for those to whom he is sent. If they reject his message, they bring down judgment upon themselves, but the apostle is in the clear. He has fulfilled his ministry, discharged his responsibility.

But what if he doesn’t let them know? Paul seems to feel a responsibility as wide as the world. He’s the apostle to the Gentiles. He calls himself a debtor to Greeks and to Barbarians, to the wise and to the foolish. (And in the world of his time, that took in just about everyone.) He labored tirelessly to see that all of them had opportunity to hear the message which had been entrusted to him. In Ephesus he did not cease night or day to admonish everyone. He taught people publicly and from house to house. He spared no effort, shunned no risk, to bring the full message he had received to everyone he met.

In Paul’s case, this message was more than a warning. It was a glorious gospel. He had good news to tell of God’s saving love in the gift of His Son. He proclaimed Christ, crucified for our sins and risen to give us new life. He brought the promise to everyone that a new birth as God’s children, forgiveness of sins and endless life awaited all who would repent and trust in
Christ. His warning was simply that if people rejected or neglected so great a salvation as God had provided at such enormous cost, there could be no other hope for them.

And what a large-hearted watchman the apostle was! He was no paid professional, simply putting in time. His heart and soul were in his work. When he warned people to flee from the wrath to come and invited them to receive God’s gift of salvation in Christ, he yearned over them with unspeakable longing. He prayed for them night and day with many tears. He embodied as nearly and purely as anyone ever has the seeking love of the Lord Himself. One devout student of Paul’s writings, F.W.H. Myers, puts these words in the apostle’s mouth:

Only as souls I see the folk thereunder

bound who should conquer, slaves who should be kings.

Then with the rush the intolerable craving

shivers throughout me like a trumpet call:

“Oh to save these! To perish for their saving,

die for their life, be offered for them all!”

It moves me to read these words of the apostle and words about him. It shames me to speak of them. What ministry can compare with this one! In sheer intensity, in dogged faithfulness, in burning compassion, did any servant of Christ ever spend himself so entirely to rescue the perishing and hold back those stumbling to the slaughter, to extend to others the marvelous welcome of the gospel?

But though we cannot hope to match Paul’s labors, we can partake to some degree of his spirit. Better, we can be learners in the same school, witnesses to the same risen Lord. And we want to tell you today, as God’s messengers, of a judgment ahead that we desperately need to escape, all of us. There is a coming wrath. There is a hell to shun and a heaven to seek. But God in the gift of His Son Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for us, offers us today a free and full salvation. If you will this day repent and believe in Jesus, if you will call on Him as your Savior, you will be forever saved. Amen.

PRAYER: Father, for all those who love people enough to warn them of judgment and invite them to Christ, we thank You. We pray that every person receiving this message today may hear the Word of God and may repent and turn to Christ. In His name. Amen.