They feared the Lord, and served their own gods. – 2 Kings 17:33.
When the ten tribes of Israel were carried away captive by the king of Assyria, their places were supplied with strangers of different idolatrous nations, who knew nothing of the religion of the Jews. Very soon the wild beasts increased in the country, and the lions destroyed multitudes of the people, and they thought it was because they did not know the god of the country, and had therefore ignorantly transgressed his religion, and offended him, and he had sent the lions among them as a punishment. So they applied to the king, who told them to get one of the priests of the Israelites to teach them the manner of the god of the land. They took this advice, and obtained one of the priests to come to Bethel and teach them the religious ceremonies and modes of worship that had been practiced there. And he taught them to fear Jehovah, as the God of that country. But still they did not receive him as the only God. They feared him; that is, they feared his anger and his judgments, and to avert these, they performed the prescribed rites. But they “served” their own gods—they kept up their idolatrous worship, and this was what they loved and preferred, though they felt obliged to pay some reverence to Jehovah, as the God of that country. There are still multitudes of persons, professing to fear God, and perhaps possessing a certain kind of the fear of the Lord, who, nevertheless, serve their own gods they have other things to which their hearts are supremely devoted, and other objects in which they mainly put their trust.
There are, as you know, two kinds of fear. There is that fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom, which is founded in love. There is also a slavish fear, which is a mere dread of evil, and is purely selfish. This is the kind of fear which is possessed by those people spoken of in the text. They were afraid Jehovah would send his judgments upon them, if they did not perform certain rites and this was the motive they had for paying him worship. Those who have this fear are supremely selfish, and while they profess to reverence Jehovah, have other gods whom they love and serve.
There are several classes of persons to whom this is applicable, and my object tonight is to describe some of them, in such a way, that those of you here, who possess this character, may know yourselves, and may see how it is that your neighbors know you and understand your real characters.
To serve a person is to be obedient to the will and devoted to the interests of that individual. It is not properly called serving where only certain acts are performed, without entering into the service of the person; but to serve, is to make it a business to do the will and promote the interest of the person. To serve God is to make religion the main business of life. It is to devote one’s self, heart, life, powers, time, influence, and all, to promote the interests of God, to build up the kingdom of God, and to advance the glory of God. Who are they who, while they profess to fear the Lord, serve their own gods?
1. I answer, first, all those of you who have not heartily and practically renounced the ownership of your possessions, and given them up to God.
It is self-evident that if you have not done this, you are not serving God. Suppose a gentleman were to employ a clerk to take care of his store, and suppose the clerk were to continue to attend to his own business, and when asked to do what is necessary for his employer, who pays him his wages, he should reply, “I really have so much business of my own to attend to, that I have no time to do these things;” would not everybody cry out against such a servant, and say he was not serving his employer at all, his time is not his own, it is paid for, and he but served himself? So where a man has not renounced the ownership of himself, not only in thought, but practically, he has not taken the first lesson in religion. He is not serving the Lord, but serving his own gods.
2. That man who does not make the business in which he is engaged a part of his religion, does not serve God.
You hear a man say, sometimes, I am so much engaged all day in the world, or in worldly business, that I have not time to serve God. He thinks he serves God a little while in the morning, and then attends to his worldly business. That man, you may rely on it, left his religion where he said his prayers. He is willing, perhaps, to give God the time before breakfast, before he gets ready to go to his own business; but as soon as that is over, away he goes to his own work. He fears the Lord enough, perhaps, to go through his prayers night and morning, but he serves his own gods. That man’s religion is the laughing stock of hell! He prays very devoutly, and then, instead of engaging in his business for God, he is serving himself. No doubt the idols are well satisfied with the arrangement, but God is wholly displeased.
3. But again: Those of you are serving your own gods, who devote to Jehovah that which costs you little or nothing.
There are many who make religion consist in certain acts of piety that do not interfere with their selfishness. You pray in the morning in your family, because you can do it then very conveniently, but do not suffer the service of Jehovah to interfere with the service of your gods, or to stand in the way of your getting rich, or enjoying the world. The gods you serve make no complaint of being slighted or neglected for the service of Jehovah.
4. All that class are serving their own gods, who suppose that the six days of the week belong to themselves, and that the Sabbath only is God’s day.
There are multitudes who suppose that the week is man’s time, and the Sabbath only God’s, and that they have a right to do their own work during the week, and to serve themselves, and promote their own interests, if they will only keep the Sabbath strictly, and serve God on the Sabbath. For instance: a celebrated preacher, in illustrating the wickedness of breaking the Sabbath, used this illustration “Suppose a man, having seven dollars in his pocket, should meet a beggar in great distress, and give him six dollars, keeping only one for himself; and the beggar, seeing that he retained one dollar, should return and rob him of that; would not every heart despise his baseness?” You see it embodies this idea that it is very ungrateful to break the Sabbath since God has given to men six days for their own, to serve themselves, and only reserved the Sabbath to himself, and to rob God of the seventh day is base ingratitude.
You that do this do not serve God at all. If you are selfish during the week, you are selfish altogether. To suppose you had any real piety would imply that you were converted every Sabbath and unconverted every Monday. If a man would serve himself all the week and really posses religion on the Sabbath, he requires to be converted for it. But is this the idea of the Sabbath, that it is a day to serve God in exclusive of other days? Is God in need of your services on the Sabbath to keep his work on?
God requires all your services as much on the six days as on the Sabbath, only he has appropriated the Sabbath to peculiar duties, and required its observance as a day of rest from bodily toil and from those fatiguing cares and labors that concern the present world. But because God uses means in accomplishing his purposes, and men have bodies as well as souls, and the gospel is to be spread and sustained by the things of this world, therefore God requires you to work all the six days at your secular employments. But it is all for his service, as much as the worship of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is no more given for the service of God than Monday. You have no more right to serve yourselves on Monday than you have on the Sabbath. If any of you have thus considered the matter, and imagined that the six days of the week were your own time, it shows that you are supremely selfish. I beg of you not to consider that in prayer and on the Sabbath you are serving God at all, if the rest of the time you are considered as serving yourself. You have never known the radical principle of serving the Lord.
5. Those are serving themselves, or their own gods, who will not make any sacrifices of personal ease and comfort in religion.
For instance, there are multitudes who object to free churches on this ground, that they require a sacrifice of personal gratification. They talk like this: “We wish to sit with our families;” or, “We want our seats cushioned,” or “We always like to sit in the same place.” They admit that free churches are necessary, in order to make the gospel accessible to the thousands that are going to hell in this city. But they cannot make these little sacrifices, to throw open the doors of God’s house to this mass of impenitent sinners.
These little things often indicate most clearly the state of men’s hearts. Suppose your servant were to say, “I cannot do this,” or “I cannot do that,” because it interferes with his personal ease and comfort. He cannot do this because he likes to sit on a cushion and work. Or he cannot do that because it would separate him from his family an hour and a half. What! is that doing service? When a man enters into service he gives up his ease and comfort for the interest and at the will of his employer. Is it true that any man is supremely devoted to the service of God, when he shows that his own ease and comfort are dearer than the kingdom of Jesus Christ, and that he would sooner sacrifice the salvation of sinners than sit on a hard seat, or be separated from his family an hour or two?
6. Those are serving their own gods, who give their time and money, when they do give, grudgingly, by constraint, and not of a ready mind, and with a cheerful heart.
What would you think of your servant, if you had to dun or drive him all the time, to do anything for your interest? Would you not say he was an eye-servant? How many people there are, who when they do anything on account of religion, do it grudgingly. If they do anything, it comes hard. If you go to one of these characters, and want his time or his money for any religious object it is difficult to get him engaged. It seems to go across the grain and is not easy or natural. It is plain he does not consider the interests of Christ’s kingdom the same with his own. He may make a show of fearing the Lord, but he “serves” some other gods of his own.