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deeply seated thorn rankling in his frame, he could in no wise extract. This was sent at a moment when he had been most favored by the Almighty; when he had been elevated with the visions of Paradise, and would have appeared least likely to expect such an event.
What particular infliction it was, we are not told. The Bible never administers to mere curiosity. Had the minute character of it been detailed, its application in subsequent ages would have been less easy; whereas now, being left in general terms, it is equally suited for consolation under all possible varieties of trial, to all persons, in all countries, and in every period of time.
It is enough for us to know, that, as Jacob at the moment of most exalted favor at Peniel, was reminded of his weakness by the shrinking sinew of his thigh, and went away halting before men, to the observation of all who saw him, when he had just prevailed as a prince with God; so St. Paul carried down with him from the heights of heaven, some humiliating memorial of infirmity, like a stake or goad inserted into his flesh.
Or that as the Israelites when surrounded by the inhabitants of the land, so St. Paul when he descended from the scenes of unutterable glory, found some persons or things about him to be as pricks in his eyes and thorns in his side," which vexed and impeded him in the discharge of his most solemn duties.
We may judge of the grievous irritation here intended, by the degree of pain which the most ordinary thorn piercing the foot in our path, occasions. This is to lower indeed the image; for the expression before us imports a large goad or stake, inserted and driven into the most susceptible part of the frame, not slightly taken up by the foot only. But to illustrate the case even by this commonest of
all occurrences, we perfectly know that with such an impediment, we proceed on our way, at first, more slowly and with some pain; afterwards with weakness, dejection, and weariness; then, with the body and mind exhausted; till, disqualifying inflammation lastly succeeds.
4. All this was, moreover, aggravated by Satan, the great spiritual adversary: the apostle says, it was a messenger of Satan to buffet him." It was not merely a simple affliction, however peculiar, but with Satan also assailing him like Job. His fiery darts" were directed against him, as a mark. He came in as an opponent, mixed himself with the fray, and "buffeted" the fainting combatant. Satan's designs are malignant. He knows nothing of the gracious purposes of God towards his servants. The
thorn," so far as he was concerned, was dipped in mortal poison; nor had he any thing less at heart than the ultimate benefit of the apostle, and the display of the power of Christ.
Such was the case of St. Paul: and such in all ages has been the case of Christians generally, and in particular of the ministers of religion in times of persecution or other seasons of remarkable difficulty. They feel dejecting weakness, trial, opposition. In their public duties more especially, in which the good of their fellow creatures and the glory of Christ are concerned, opponents rise up as against the apostle. Their motives are misrepresented, their honest efforts resisted, their warmest supporters thwarted, neutralized, turned against them. Losses of friends, ingratitude, cowardice in those who should have aided, and who promised to have aided them, make them painfully feel the weakness of their mortal state. Perhaps some peculiarly irritating affliction, like
1 Calv: in loc.
a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan," is sent to "buffet" them at seasons of unusual success in other respects, and to expose them to the gaze and contempt of the observant and despiteful world.
Their "soul is brought low even to the dust." They say, "They are forsaken and forgotten of the Lord; all they that go by spoil them; they are become a reproach to their neighbors;" they fear that "God's mercy is clean gone for ever, and that his promise has failed for ever more."
See Job in his destitution and sickness. Mark Jacob going down, as he conceived, to his grave in sorrow. Behold Joseph in prison, "the iron entering into his soul;" Hannah " provoked sore by her adversary for to make her to fret;" David "hunted as a partridge on the mountains" by those who had gone up with him to the house of God."
Here, then, I may leave the first part of the paradox. I have fairly opened to you the infirmities which form this branch of it. Would any before me desire me to include their own case more expressly; would they wish me to state their aggravated sufferings in detail? They probably would. Every sufferer thinks his own case peculiar. Then take the text, each one of you, and fill up the blank with your own name and circumstances. I give you full license. Only insist not on inscribing your particular story in the sacred text; because that would unfit it for the use of the millions and millions in all ages who have equally with you applied it to themselves. But for the time make it your own. Say, such and such and such a trial is to me a "thorn in the flesh," the " messenger of Satan,” which "buffets me" as a powerful and malicious combatant. You are now then prepared to follow me in considering,
II. The salutary conviction which the Apostle's weakness gradually produced in his mind. For we are not yet arrived at the other branch of the paradox. There is no appearance as yet of strength; and least of all, of strength arising from weakness. We see nothing at present but absolute suffering, the malignant darts of Satan, the body emaciated by anguish, duties and efforts impeded. We must consider, then, the process by which the extraordinary result was brought about. We must view the apostle learning under the heavenly discipline those lessons which prepared him, as they will us, for receiving the aid and grace of Christ.
1. The goading thorn, then, was a means of leading him to the true source of strength, by checking secret exultation. St. Paul had been favored, as I have stated, with peculiar manifestations of the heavenly world; and a danger hence arose, through the corruption of nature, of his being "exalted above measure." The Almighty Physician saw the disease before St. Paul himself did, and began laying in materials for its cure in a way he little expected. Any blessings however slight, whether temporal or spiritual, have a tendency to engender pride in such a creature as fallen man. What could St. Paul, it may be said, see in the third heavens to produce self-applause? Was there danger of pride in heaven? Does not the nearer view of God generate humility? Undoubtedly. But the peril is not from the objects themselves, but from the heart which contemplates them. Any distinction, any power, any success, any circumstance which brings us before others, any measure of knowledge or influence, is dangerous in the extreme. It is a spark falling on the most inflammable materials. The propensity is so strong, that the best Christians need a thorn in the flesh" to check the evil.
False religion, indeed, is habitually marked by
pride, and is not altered materially by elevation; it is the element in which it moves. True religion flourishes only in humility; and therefore pride, like an imposthume, is opened by the salutary care of the good Physician, whatever pain it occasions.
If any man could be considered exempt from this peril, it was the apostle. He was profoundly humble; he accounted himself "the chief of sinners." The "abundant revelations," to which the text refers, had been kept concealed by him for "fourteen years;" they are then described as conferred on a certain person not named; and this, only on occasion of the boastings of the false teachers, and when forced from him by the necessities of the Churches; and at last they are stated with apologies, with confusion, as by one who was become a fool in glorying." Nevertheless, St. Paul was in danger; in such danger, that " a messenger of Satan" is sent, as to Job of old, to “buffet” him.
And yet how frequently do young Christians now. a-days rush into the greatest perils without thought! They love to be talked of; they boast of every thing God vouchsafes them; they hurry to relate their experiences; they delight in crowds and display-little thinking how soon vanity and self-confidence are generated in the human heart.
2. The apostle further was led by the heavenly discipline to more fervent prayer. "For this cause,' he informs us, "I besought the Lord thrice," (fre- ' quently) "that it might depart from me." But had not St. Paul been a man of fervent prayer before? Are not his epistles full of prayers, affectionate, earnest prayers for all the Churches? Yes. But he had not prayed with that feeling of personal urgency, with that degree of holy importunity, with that sacred wrestling with God, with that interior prostration of soul which this goading thorn excited. Till the emergency was created, he could not pray as one in that emergency.