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A Classic Study by John Flavel (1628-1691)

[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.]--Ed.

Constancy in Important Matters

Look: as the sea, by turns, doth ebb and flow,

So their estates, that use it, come and go.


The sea hath its alternate course and motion, its ebbings and flowings; no sooner is it high water, but it begins to ebb again, and leave the shore naked and dry, which but a little before it covered and overflowed. And as its tide, so also its waves are the emblem of inconstancy, still rolling and tumbling, this way and that, never fixed and quiet. Instabilis unda: as fickle as a wave, is common, to a proverb. See James 1:6,11: "He that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind, and tossed." So Isa. 57:20: "It cannot rest."


Thus mutable and inconstant are all outward things, there is no depending on them: nothing of any substance, or any solid consistence in them: "The fashion of this world passeth away" (I Cor. 7:31). It is a high point of folly to depend upon such vanities: "Why wilt thou set" (or, as it is in the Hebrew "cause") "thine eyes to fly upon that which is not? For riches certainly make themselves wings, and fly away, as an eagle towards heaven." (Prov. 23:5). In flying to us (saith Augustine) they have, alas vix quidem passerinas, scarce a sparrow's wings; but in flying from us, wings as an eagle. And those wings they are said to make to themselves; i.e., the cause of its transitoriness is in itself; the creature is subjected to vanity by sin; they are sweet flowers, but withered presently: "As the flower of the grass, so shall the rich man fade away." (James 1:10). The man is like the stalk or grass, his riches are the flower of the grass; his glory and outward beauty, the stalk, is soon withered but the flower much sooner. This is either withered upon, or blown off from it, while the stalk abides. Many a man outlives his estate and honour, and stands in the world as a bare dry stalk in the field, whose flower, beauty, and bravery are gone: one puff of wind blows it away, one churlish easterly blast shrivels it up (see I Pet. 4:24).

How mad a thing is it, then, for any man to be lifted up in pride, upon such a vanity as this is! To build so lofty and over-jetting a roof upon such a feeble, tottering foundation! We have seen meadows full of such curious flowers, mown down and withered; men of great estates impoverished suddenly; and when, like a meadow that is mown, they have begun to recover themselves again (as the phrase is) the Lord hath sent "grasshoppers in the beginning of the shooting up of the latter growth" (Amos 7:2). Just as the grasshoppers and other creatures, devour the second tender herbage as soon as the field begins to recover its verdure; so men, after they have been denuded and blasted by Providence, they begin after a while to flourish again; but then comes some new affliction and blasts all. None have more frequent experience of this than you that are merchants and seamen, whose estates are floating; and yet such as have had the highest security in the eye of reason, have, notwithstanding, experienced the vanity of these things. Henry IV, a potent prince was reduced to such a low ebb, that he petitioned for a prebend's place in the church of Spire. Gallimer, king of the Vandals, was brought so low, that he sent to his friends for a sponge, a loaf of bread, and a harp: a sponge to dry up his tears, a loaf of bread to maintain his life, and a harp to solace him in his misery. The story of Bellisarius is very affecting: he was a man famous in his time, general of an army, yet having his eyes put out, and stripped of all earthly comforts, was led about crying, Date obolum Bellisario ("Give one penny to poor Bellisarius"). Instances in history of this kind are infinite. Men of the greatest estates and honours have nevertheless become the very ludibria fortunae, as one speaks, the very scorn of fortune.

Yea, and not only wicked men that have gotten their estates by rapine and oppression, have lived to see them thus scattered by Providence: but sometimes godly men have had their estates, how justly soever acquired, thus scattered by providence also. Whoever had an estate, better gotten, better bottomed, or better managed, than Job? yet all was overthrown and swept away in a moment; though in mercy to him, as the issue demonstrated.

Oh then: What a vanity is it to set the heart, and let out the affections on them! You can never depend too much upon God, nor too little upon the creature: "Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not high-minded and trust in uncertain riches." (I Tim. 4:17).


Are all earthly things thus transitory and vain? Then what a reproach and shame is it to me, that the men of this world should be more industrious and eager in the prosecution of such vanities, than I am to enrich my soul with solid and everlasting treasure? O that ever a sensual lust should be more operative in them than the love of God in me! O my soul, thou dost not lay out thy strength and earnestness for heaven with any proportion to what they do for the world. I have indeed higher motives, and a surer reward than they: but as I have an advantage above them herein, so they have an advantage above me in the strength and entireness of the principle by which they are acted. What they do for the world, they do it with all their might; they have no contrary principle to oppose them; their thoughts, strength, and affections are entirely carried in one channel; but I find "a law in my members warring against the law of my mind" (Rom. 7:23). I must strive through a thousand difficulties and contradictions to the discharge of a duty. O my God! Shall not my heart be more enlarged in zeal, love, and delight in Thee, than theirs are after their lusts? O let me at once find it so.

Again, is the creature so vain and unstable? Then why are my affections so hot and eager after it? And why am I so apt to dote upon its beauty, especially when God is staining all its pride and glory! Surely it is unbecoming the spirit of a Christian at any time, but at such a time we may say of it, as Hushai of Ahithophel's counsel, "It is not good at this time" (Jer. 45:5, 6).

O that my spirit were raised above them, and my conversation wore in heaven! O that like that angel (see Rev. 10:1,2) which came down from heaven, and set one foot upon the sea, and another upon the earth, having a crown upon his head, so I might set one foot upon all the cares, fears, and terrors of the world, and another upon all the tempting splendor and glory of the world, treading both underfoot in the dust, and crowning myself with nothing but spiritual excellencies and glory!

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