[Here, we continue our reprint of excerpts from John Flavel's book Navigation Spiritualized. John Flavel was a 17th Century minister in the seaside town of Dartmouth, England. A good many of his parishioners made their living on the sea, and so Mr. Flavel wrote Navigation Spiritualized, a book which draws parallels between things of the sea and spiritual things. This book is a masterpiece in the way it communicates spiritual truths in the language of its target audience, the seamen of Dartmouth. In fact, it was written specifically for the seamen to take on voyages and read, so that (for example), while they sailed the boundless seas, they could read of God's boundless mercies; or, while they adjusted their sails for shifting winds, they could read how to prepare their souls for the shifting winds of life; etc. And indeed, though few of us are seamen, we are all on a voyage through this life, so (I dare say) we may all profit from this study.]--Ed.
The ocean is of vast extent and depth, though supposedly measurable, yet not to be sounded by man. It compasseth about the whole earth, which, in the account of Geographers, is twenty-one thousand and six hundred miles in compass; yet the ocean environs it on every side (see Ps. 104:35; Job 11:9). Suitable to which is that of the poet [Ovid]:
He spread the seas, which then He did command,
To swell with winds, and compass round the land.
And for its depth, who can discover it? The sea in Scripture is called the deep (see Job 38:30), the great deep (see Gen 7:11), the gathering together of the waters into one place (see Gen 1:9). If the vastest mountain were cast into it, it would appear no more than the head of a pin in a tun of water.
This, in a lively manner, shadows forth the infinite and incomprehensible mercy of our God, whose mercy is said to be over all His works (see Ps. 145:9). In how many sweet notions is the mercy of God represented to us in the Scripture? He is said to be plenteous (see Ps. 103:8), abundant (see I Pet. 1:3), rich in mercy (Eph. 2:4), then, that His mercies are unsearchable (see Eph. 3:8). "High as the heavens above the earth" (Ps. 10:4), which are so high and vast, that the whole earth is but a small point to them; yea, they are not only compared to the heavens, but to come home to the metaphor, to the depths of the sea (see Micah 7:19), which can swallow up mountains as well as molehills; and in this sea God hath drowned sins of a dreadful height and aggravation, even scarlet, crimson, i.e. deep dyed with many intensive aggravations (see Isa. 1:18). In this sea was the sin of Manasseh drowned, and of what magnitude that was, may be seen (see II Chron. 33:3), yea, in this ocean of mercy did the Lord drown and cover the sins of Paul, though a blasphemer, a persecutor, injurious (see I Tim. 1:13). "None (saith Augustine) more fierce than Paul among the persecutors, and therefore none greater among sinners": To which himself willingly subscribes (see I Tim. 1:15), yet pardoned. How hath mercy rode in triumph, and been glorified upon the vilest of men! How hath it stopped the slanderous mouths of men and devils. It hath yearned upon "fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, extortioners", to such have the sceptre of mercy been stretched forth, upon their unfeigned repentance and submission (see I Cor. 6:9). What doth the Spirit of God aim at in such a large accumulation of names of mercy? but to convince poor sinners of the abundant fullness and riches of it, if they will but submit to the terms on which it is tendered to them.
In the vastness of the ocean, we have also a lively emblem of eternity. Who can comprehend or measure the ocean, but God? And who can comprehend eternity but He that is said to inhabit it? (see Isa. 57:5). Though shallow rivers may be drained and dried up, yet the ocean cannot. And though these transitory days, months, and years will at last expire and determine; yet eternity shall not. O! it is a long word! and amazing matter! What is eternity but a constant permanency of persons and things, in one and the same state and condition forever; putting them beyond all possibility of change? The heathens were wont to shadow it by a circle, or a snake twisted round. It will be to all of us, either a perpetual day or night, which will not be measured by watches, hours, minutes. And as it cannot be measured, so neither can it ever be diminished. When thousands of years are gone, there is not a minute less to come. Gerhard and Drexelious do both illustrate it by this known similitude: Suppose a bird were to come once in a thousand years to some vast mountain of sand, and carry away in her bill one grain in a thousand years; O what a vast time would it be ere that immortal bird, after that rate, should carry off the mountain! and yet in time this might be done. For there would still be some diminution; but in eternity there can be none. There be three things in time, which are not competent to eternity: In time there is a succession, one generation, year and day passeth, and another comes; but eternity is a fixed now. In time there is a diminution and wasting, the more is past, the less is to come. But it is not so in eternity. In time there is an alteration of condition and states: A man may be poor today, and rich tomorrow; sickly and diseased this week and well the next; now in contempt, and anon in honour: But no changes pass upon us in eternity. As the tree falls at death and judgment, so it lies forever. If in heaven, there thou art a pillar, and shalt go forth no more (see Rev. 3:12). If in hell, no redemption thence, but the smoke of their torment ascendeth forever and ever (see Rev. 19:3).
And is the mercy of God like the great deep, an ocean that none can fathom? What unspeakable comfort is this to me? (may the pardoned soul say). Did Israel sing a song, when the Lord had overwhelmed their corporeal enemies in the seas? And shall not I break forth into His praises, who hath drowned all my sins in the depth of mercy? O my soul, bless thou the Lord, and let His high praises ever be in thy mouth. Mayest thou not say, that He hath gone to as high an extent and degree of mercy in pardoning thee as ever He did in any? O my God, who is like unto Thee! that pardoneth iniquity, transgression and sin. What mercy, but the mercy of a God could cover such abomination as mine?
But O! what terrible reflections will conscience make from hence, unto all despisers of mercy, when the sinner's eyes come to be opened too late for mercy, to do them good! We have heard indeed, that the king of heaven was a merciful king, but we would make no address to Him, whilst that sceptre was stretched out. We heard of balm in Gilead, and a physician there, that was able and willing to cure all our wounds, but we would not commit ourselves to Him. We read, that the arms of Christ were open to embrace and receive us, but we would not. O unparalleled folly! O soul-destroying madness! Now the womb of mercy is shut up, and shall bring forth no more mercies to me forever. Now the gates of grace are shut, and no cries can open them.
Mercy acted its part, and is gone off the stage: and now justice enters the scene, and will be glorified forever upon me. How often did I hear the bowels of compassion sounding in the gospel for me? But my hard and impenitent heart could not relent; and now, if it could, it is too late. I am now past out of the ocean of mercy, into the ocean of eternity, where I am fixed in the midst of endless misery, and shall never hear the voice of mercy more!
O dreadful eternity! O soul-confounding word! An ocean indeed, to which this ocean is but as a drop; for in thee no soul shall see either bank or bottom. If I lie but one night under strong pains of body, how tedious doth that night seem! And how do I tell the clock, and wish for day! In the world I might have had life, and would not. And now, how fain would I have death, but cannot? How quick were my sins in execution? And how long is their punishment in duration? O! how shall I dwell with everlasting burnings? Oh that God would but vouchsafe one treaty more with me! But alas, all tenders and treaties are now at an end with me. On earth peace (see Luke 2:13), but none in hell. O my soul! consider these things; come, let us debate this matter seriously, before we launch out into this ocean.