Out of the House of Bondage
by Thomas Watson (1620 Ė1686)
Egypt and the house of bondage are the same, only they are expressed under a different notion. By Egypt is meant a place of idolatry and superstition; by the house of bondage is meant a place of affliction. Israel, while in Egypt, was under great tyranny; they had cruel task-masters set over them, who put them to hard labour, and set them to make bricks, yet allowed them no straw; therefore, Egypt is called, in Deut. 4:20, "the iron furnace, and here the house of bondage." From this expression, "I brought thee out of the house of bondage", two things are to be noted: Godís children may sometimes be under sore afflictions (In "the house of bondage"); but God will, in due time, bring them out of their afflicted state ("I brought thee out of the house of bondage").
Godís children may sometimes be under sore afflictions in the house of bondage. Godís people have no writ of ease granted them, no charter of exemption from trouble in this life. While the wicked are kept in sugar, the godly are often kept in brine. And, indeed, how could Godís power be seen in bringing them out of trouble, if He did not sometimes bring them into it? Or how should God wipe away the tears from their eyes in heaven, if on earth they shed none? Doubtless, God sees there is need that His children should be sometimes in the house of bondage. "If need be, ye are in heaviness" (II Peter 1:6). The body sometimes needs a bitter portion more than a sweet one.
Why does God let His people be in the house of bondage or in an afflicted state?
He does it,
(1) For probation or trial. "Who led thee through that terrible wilderness, that He might humble thee and prove thee" (Deut. 8:15,16). Affliction is the touchstone of sincerity. "Thou O God, hast proved us; Thou hast tried us as silver; Thou laidst affliction upon our loins" (Psa. 66:10). Hypocrites may embrace the true religion in prosperity, and court this queen while she has a jewel hung at her ear; but he is a good Christian who will keep close to God in a time of suffering. "All this is come upon us, yet have we not forgotten thee" (Psa. 44:17). To love God in heaven, is no wonder; but to love Him when He chastises us, discovers sincerity.
(2) For purgation; to purge our corruption. "And this is all the fruit, to take away his sin" (Isa. 28:9). The eye, though a tender part, yet when sore, we put sharp powders and waters into it to eat out the pearl; so though the people of God are dear to Him, yet, when corruption begins to grow in them, He will apply the sharp powder of affliction to eat out the pearl in the eye. Affliction is Godís flail to thresh our husks; it is a means God uses to purge out sloth, luxury, pride, and love of the world. Godís furnace is in Zion (see Isa 31:5). This is not to consume, but to refine. What if we have more affliction, if by this means we have less sin!
(3) For augmentation; to increase the graces of the Spirit. Grace thrives most in the iron furnace. Sharp frosts nourish the corn; so sharp afflictions nourish grace. Grace in the saints is often as fire hid in the embers, affliction is the bellows to blow it up into a flame. The Lord makes the house of bondage a friend to grace. Then faith and patience act their part. The darkness of the night cannot hinder the brightness of a star; so, the more the diamond is cut the more it sparkles; and the more God afflicts us, the more our graces cast a sparkling lustre.
(4) For preparation; to fit and prepare the saints for glory (see II Cor 4:17). The stones, which are cut out for a building, are first hewn and squared. The godly are called "living stones" (I Pet 2:5). God first hews and polishes them by affliction, that they may be fit for the heavenly building. The house of bondage prepares for the house not made with hands (see II Cor. 5:1). The vessels of mercy are seasoned with affliction, and then the wine of glory is poured in.
How do the afflictions of the godly differ from the afflictions of the wicked?
(1) They are but castigations, but those on the wicked are punishments. The one come from a father, the other from a judge.
(2) Afflictions on the godly are fruits of covenant-mercy (see II Sam. 7:14). Afflictions on the wicked are effects of Godís wrath. "He hath much wrath with his sickness" (Eccl. 5:17). Afflictions on the wicked are the pledge and earnest of hell; they are like the pinioning of a malefactor, which presages his execution.
(3) Afflictions on the godly make them better, but afflictions on the wicked make them worse. The godly pray more (see Psa. 130:1). The wicked blashpheme more. "Men were scorched with great heat, and blasphemed the name of God" (Rev. 16:9). Afflictions on the wicked make them more impenitent; every plague upon Egypt increased the plague of hardness in Pharaohís heart. To what a prodigy of wickedness do some persons come after great sickness. Affliction on the godly is like bruising spices, which are most sweet and fragrant: affliction on the wicked is like pounding weeds with a pestle, which makes them more unsavoury.
Use one. (1) We are not to wonder to see Israel in the house of bondage (see I Pet 4:12). The holiness of the saints will not excuse them from sufferings. Christ was the holy one of God, yet He was in the iron furnace. His spouse is a lily among thorns (see Song of Sol. 2:2). Though His sheep have the ear-mark of election upon them, yet they may have their wool fleeced off. The godly have some good in them, therefore the devil afflicts them; and some evil in them, therefore God afflicts them. While there are two seeds in the world, expect to be under the black rod. The gospel tells us of reigning, but first of suffering (see II Tim 2:12).
(2) Affliction is not always the sign of Godís anger. Israel, the apple of Godís eye, a peculiar treasure to Him above all people, were in the house of bondage (see Exod 19:5). We are apt to judge and censure those who are in an afflicted state. When the barbarians saw the viper on Paulís hand, they said, "No doubt this man is a murderer" (Acts 28:4). So, when we see the viper of affliction fasten upon the godly, we are apt to censure them, and say, these are greater sinners than others, and God hates them; but this rash censuring is for want of wisdom. Was not Israel in the house of bondage? Were not Jeremiah in the dungeon, and Paul a night and day in the deep? Godís afflicting is so far from evidencing hatred, that His not afflicting does. "I will not punish your daughters when they commit whoredom" (Hos. 4:14). God punishes most when He does not punish; His hand is heaviest when it seems to be lightest. The judge will not burn him in the hand whom he intends to execute.
(3) If Godís own Israel may be in the house of bondage, then afflictions do not of themselves demonstrate a man miserable. Indeed, sin unrepented of, makes one miserable; but the cross does not. If God has a design in afflicting His children to make them happy, they are not miserable; but Godís afflicting them is to make them happy, therefore they are not miserable. "Happy is the man whom God correcteth" (Job 5:17). The world counts them happy who can keep out of affliction; but the Scripture calls them happy who are afflicted.
How are they happy?
Because they are more holy (see Heb 12:10). Because they are more in Godís favour (see Prov. 3:12). The goldsmith loves his gold when in the furnace. Because they have more of Godís sweet presence (Psa. 91:15). They cannot be unhappy who have Godís powerful presence in supporting, and His gracious presence in sanctifying, their affliction. Because the more affliction they have, the more degrees of glory they shall have; the lower they have been in the iron furnace, the higher they shall sit upon the throne of glory; the heavier their crosses, the heavier shall be their crown. So then, if afflictions make a Christian happy, they cannot call him miserable.
(4) See the merciful providence of God to His children. Though they may be in the house of bondage, and smart by affliction, yet they shall not be hurt by affliction. What hurt does the fan to the corn? It only separates the chaff from it; or the lance to the body? It only lets out the abscess. The house of bondage does that which sometimes ordinances will not; it humbles and reforms. "If they be held in cords of affliction, he openeth their ear to discipline, and commandeth that they return from iniquity" (Job 36:8,10). Oh! What a merciful providence is it that, though God bruise His people, yet, while He is bruising them, He is doing them good! It is as if one should throw a bag of money at another, which bruises him a little, but yet it enriches him. Affliction enriches the soul, and yields the sweet fruits of righteousness (see Heb. 12:11).
(5) If Israel be in the house of bondage, if the Lord deals so with His own children, then how severely will He deal with the wicked! If He be so severe with those He loves, how severe will He be with those He hates! "If they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?" (Luke 23:31). If they that pray and mourn for sin be so severely dealt with, what will become of those that swear and break the Sabbath, and are unclean! If Israel be in the iron furnace, the wicked shall lie in the fiery furnace of hell. It should be the saddest news to wicked men, to hear that the people of God are afflicted. Let them think how dreadful the case of sinners will be. "Judgment must begin at the house of God; and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel?" (I Pet. 4:17). If God thresh His wheat, He will burn the chaff. If the godly suffer castigation, the wicked shall suffer condemnation. If He mingle his peopleís cup with wormwood, He will mingle the wickedís cup with fire and brimstone.
Use two. If Israel be in the house of bondage,
(1) Do not entertain too hard thoughts of affliction. Christians are apt to look upon the cross and the iron furnace as frightful things, and do what they can to shun them. Nay, sometimes, to avoid affliction, they run themselves into sin. But do not think too hardly of affliction; do not look upon it as through the multiplying-glass of fear. The house of bondage is not hell. Consider that affliction comes from a wise God, who prescribes whatever befalls us. Persecutions are like apothecaries: they give us the physic that God the physician prescribes. Affliction has its light side, as well as its dark one. God can sweeten our afflictions, and candy our wormwood. As our sufferings abound, so doth also our consolation (II Cor. 1:5). Argerius dated his letters from the pleasant garden of the Leonine prison. God sometimes so revives His children in trouble, that they had rather bear their afflictions than want their comforts. Why then should Christians entertain such hard thoughts of afflictions? Do not look at its grim face, but at the message it brings, which is to enrich us with both grace and comfort.
(2) If Israel be sometimes in the house of bondage, in an afflicted state, think beforehand of affliction. Say not as Job: "I shall die in my nest" (Job 29:18). In the house of mirth think of the house of bondage. You that are now Naomi, may be Mara (see Ruth 1:20). How quickly may the scene turn, and the hyperbole of joy end in a catastrophe! All outward things are given to change. The forethoughts of affliction would make us sober and moderate in the use of lawful delight; it would cure a surfeit. Christ at a feast mentions His burial; a good antidote against a surfeit. The forethought of affliction would make us prepare for it; it would take us off the world; it would put us upon search of our evidences.
We should see what oil we have in our lamps, what grace we can find, that we may be able to stand in the evil day. That soldier is imprudent who has his sword to whet when he is just going to fight. He who forecasts sufferings, will have the shield of faith, and the sword of the Spirit ready, that he may not be surprised.
(3) If afflictions come, let us labour to conduct ourselves wisely as Christians, that we may adorn our sufferings: that is, let us endure with patience. "Take, my brethren, the prophets for an example of suffering affliction and patience" (James 5:10). Satan labours to take advantage of us in affliction, by making us either faint or murmur; he blows the coals of passion and discontent, and then warms himself at the fire. Patience adorns sufferings. A Christian should say as Jesus Christ did, "Lord, not my will but Thy will be done" (Luke 22:42). It is a sign the affliction is sanctified when the heart is brought to a sweet submissive frame. God will then remove the affliction: He will take us out of the iron furnace.