Read an Excerpt
The State of Humankind
Their foot shall slide in due time. -Deuteronomy 32:35
In this verse, the vengeance of God is threatened on the wicked, unbelieving Israelites, who were God’s visible people and who lived under the means of grace, but who, notwithstanding all God’s wonderful works toward them, remained "void of counsel," having no understanding in them (verse 28). Under all the cultivations of heaven, they brought forth bitter and poisonous fruit, as in two verses that precede our text:
For their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah: their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter: their wine is the poison of dragons, and the cruel venom of asps. (Deuteronomy 32:32-33)
The Punishment of the Israelites
The phrase I have chosen for my text, "Their foot shall slide in due time," seems to imply the following things. Each of these four implications relates to the punishment and destruction to which these wicked Israelites were exposed.
Prone to Destruction
First of all, the Israelites were always exposed to destruction, just as one who stands or walks in slippery places is always prone to a fall. This is implied in the manner in which their destruction was to come upon them, for it is represented by their foot sliding. The same idea is expressed in Psalm 73:18: "Surely thou didst set them in slippery places: thou castedst them down into destruction."
Exposed to the Unexpected
Second, the phrase implies that they were always exposed to sudden and unexpected destruction. The man who walks in slippery places is at every moment liable to fall. He cannot foresee whether he will stand one moment or fall the next; and when he does fall, he falls at once, without warning. This is also expressed in the seventy-third Psalm:
Surely thou didst set them in slippery places: thou castedst them down into destruction. How are they brought into desolation, as in a moment! (Psalm 73:18-19)
Liable because of Themselves
Another thing implied by the text is that they are liable to fall of themselves, without being thrown down by the hand of another. In the same way, one who stands or walks on slippery ground needs nothing but his own weight to throw him down.
At God’s Mercy
Fourth, the reason why they have not fallen already and do not fall now, is only that God’s appointed time has not yet come. For it is written that, when that due time, or appointed time, comes, "their foot shall slide." (Deuteronomy 32:35)
At that time, they will be left to fall, as they are inclined by their own weight. God will not hold them up in these slippery places any longer, but will let them go. And then, at that very instant, they will fall into destruction, just as he who stands on such slippery, declining ground, on the edge of a pit, cannot stand alone; for when he is let go, he immediately falls and is lost.
The Mere Pleasure of God
From this, observe what our text means: There is nothing that keeps wicked men out of hell, at any one moment, except the mere pleasure of God. By "the mere pleasure of God," I mean His sovereign pleasure, His all-powerful will, restrained by no obligation, hindered by no manner of difficulty; nothing else but God’s sovereign will has a hand in the preservation of wicked men. The truth of this observation may become clear through the following considerations.
The Omnipotent God
First, there is no lack of power in God to cast wicked men into hell at any moment. Men’s hands cannot be strong when God rises up. The strongest have no power to resist Him, nor can any man escape from His hands. He is not only able to cast wicked men into hell, but He can most easily do it.
Sometimes an earthly ruler finds it very difficult to subdue a rebel who has found means to fortify himself and has made himself strong by having great numbers of followers. However, it is not so with God. There is no fortress that is any defense from the power of God. Though hand join in hand, and vast multitudes of God’s enemies combine and associate themselves, they are easily broken into pieces. They are as great heaps of chaff before the whirlwind (see Isaiah 17:13), or large quantities of dry stubble before devouring flames. (See Nahum 1:10)
We find it easy to tread on and crush a worm that we see crawling on the ground. It is just as easy for us to cut or singe a slender thread by which something hangs. Now, think of how easy it is for God, whenever He pleases, to cast His enemies down to hell. What are we, that we should think we can stand before Him, at whose rebuke the earth trembles, and before whom the rocks are thrown down? (See Nahum 1:4-6)
The Sword of Justice
The second consideration is that sinners deserve to be cast into hell. Divine justice never stands in the way of God using His power at any moment to destroy them; it makes no objection whatsoever. Rather, justice calls aloud for an infinite punishment of their sins. Divine justice says of the tree that brings forth fruit like that of the poisonous grapes of Sodom, "Cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?" (Luke 13:7). The sword of divine justice is every moment brandished over their heads, and it is nothing but the hand of all-powerful mercy, and God’s sovereign will, that holds it back.
A Sentence to Hell
Third, sinners are already under a sentence of condemnation to hell. They not only justly deserve to be cast down to that place, but the sentence of the law of God--that eternal and immutable rule of righteousness that God has fixed between Himself and humankind--has also gone out against them, and stands against them, so that they are already bound over to hell.
Consider what is written in the book of John: "He that believeth not is condemned already" (John 3:18). Every unconverted man properly belongs to hell; that is his place; his nature is from there. "Ye are from beneath," said Christ (John 8:23). And the sinner is bound to that place, for hell is the place assigned to him by justice, by God’s Word, and by the sentence of His unchangeable law.
The Objects of God’s Wrath
Fourth, let us consider that sinners are the objects of that very same anger and wrath of God that is expressed in the torments of hell. The reason that sinners do not go down to hell, at each moment, is not because God, in whose power they are, is not then very angry with them.
He is angry with many miserable creatures now tormented in hell, all of whom feel and bear the fierceness of His wrath there. Yet, God is much angrier with great numbers of people who are now on earth. In fact, He is angrier with many who are now in the congregations of our churches, many who seem to be at ease, than He is with many of those who are now in the flames of hell.
It is not because God is unmindful of their wickedness, and does not resent it, that He does not let loose His hand and cut them off. God is not altogether similar to these human beings, although they may imagine Him to be so. The wrath of God burns against them continually; their damnation does not slumber. The pit is prepared; the fire is made ready; the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whetted and held over them, and the pit has opened its mouth under them.
The Watchful Serpent
Fifth, the Devil stands ready to fall upon them, and seize them as his own, at whatever moment God will permit him. Sinners belong to him; he has their souls in his possession and under his dominion. The Scripture represents them as his goods. (See Luke 11:21-22.) The devils watch them; they are always at the right hand of these wicked men; they stand waiting for them, like greedy, hungry lions that see their prey and expect to have it, but are for the present kept back.
Now, if God should withdraw His hand, by which the devils are restrained, they would in one moment fly upon those poor souls. The old Serpent is gaping for them; hell opens its mouth wide to receive them; and if God should permit it, they would be hastily swallowed up and lost.
The Foundation for Evil
Sixth, consider that, in the souls of wicked men, hellish principles reign, which would immediately kindle and flame out into hellfire, if it were not for God’s restraints. There is laid, in the very nature of carnal men, a foundation for the torments of hell. Corrupt principles, reigning in power in them and in full possession of them, are seeds of hellfire.
These principles are active and powerful, and are exceedingly violent in nature. If it were not for the restraining hand of God upon them, they would soon break out; they would flame out in the same manner that the same corruptions, and the same enmity, do in the hearts of damned souls, and they would beget the same torments as they do in those souls.
The souls of the wicked are, in Scripture, compared to the troubled sea: "But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt" (Isaiah 57:20). For the present, God restrains their wickedness by His mighty power, as He does the raging waves of the troubled sea, saying, "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further" (Job 38:11); but if God should withdraw that restraining power, their wickedness would soon overwhelm them.
Sin is the ruin and misery of the soul. It is destructive in its nature; and if God should leave it without restraint, nothing else would be needed to make the soul perfectly miserable. The corruption of the heart of man is immoderate and boundless in its fury; and while wicked men live on this earth, it is like fire pent up by God’s restraints. If it were let loose, it would set on fire the whole course of nature. As the heart is now a cesspool of sin, so if sin were not restrained, it would immediately turn the soul into a fiery oven, or a furnace of fire and brimstone.
The Verge of Eternity
Seventh, it is no security to wicked men--not even for a moment--when they can see no visible means of death at hand. Natural man derives no security from the fact that he is healthy or that he cannot foresee the sudden way in which he will go out of the world. There is no comfort in finding no visible danger in any respect in his circumstances. The manifold and continual experience of the world, in all ages, shows this is no evidence; the world tries to prove that a man is not on the very brink of eternity, and that the next step will not be into another world, but to no avail.
The unseen, unthought of ways and means by which people suddenly go out of the world are innumerable and inconceivable. Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering, and there are countless places in this covering that are so weak that the covering will not bear their weight, and these places are not seen. The arrows of death fly unseen at midday; the sharpest sight cannot discern them.
God has so many different, unsearchable ways of taking wicked men out of the world and sending them to hell, that there is nothing to indicate that God has to go out of the ordinary course of His providence or perform a miracle, in order to destroy any wicked man, at any moment. All the means by which sinners may go out of the world are so in God’s hands, and so universally and absolutely subject to His power and determination, that the fate of sinners would not depend one bit less on the sovereign will of God, if such means were never made use of or never had any bearing on the case.
The Same Natural End for All
Our eighth consideration is that natural man’s prudence and care to preserve his own life, or the care of others to preserve him, do not secure him for a moment. Divine providence and universal experience bear testimony to this. Man’s own wisdom does not secure him from death; if it were otherwise, we would see some difference between the wise and shrewd men of the world, and others. Perhaps wise men would have less liability to early and unexpected death. But, how is it, in fact? "How dieth the wise man? [Even] as the fool." (Ecclesiastes 2:16)
The Best-Laid Plans
The ninth thing is that all wicked men’s pains and contrivances, which they use to escape hell, while they continue to reject Christ and so remain wicked men, do not secure them from hell for even one moment. Almost every natural man who hears of hell flatters himself that he will escape it. He depends on himself for his own security; he flatters himself because of what he has done, what he is now doing, or what he intends to do.
Everyone lays out in his own mind how he will avoid damnation, and flatters himself that he contrives well for himself, and that his schemes will not fail. He may indeed hear that there are few who are saved, and that the greater part of men who have died before him have gone to hell; but each one imagines that he lays out matters for his own escape better than others have done. He does not intend to go to that place of torment; he says within himself that he intends to take effectual care and to order matters for himself so as not to fail.
Even so, the foolish children of men miserably delude themselves in their own schemes, being far too confident in their own strength and wisdom; they trust in nothing but shadows. The greater part of those who, up to the present time, have lived under the same means of grace, and are now dead, have undoubtedly gone to hell. This is not because they were not as wise as those who are now alive; nor was it because they did not lay out matters as well for themselves to secure their own escape.
If we could speak with them and inquire of them, one by one, whether they, when they were alive and when they used to hear about hell, ever expected to be the subjects of misery, we doubtless would hear them reply: "No, I never intended to come here. I had laid out matters otherwise in my mind; I thought I had contrived well for myself; I thought my scheme had been good. I intended to take effectual care, but death came upon me unexpectedly. I did not look for it at that time, or in that manner; it came as a thief. Death outwitted me; God’s wrath was too quick for me. Oh, my cursed foolishness! I was flattering myself and pleasing myself with vain dreams of what I would do hereafter; and when I was saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ then sudden destruction came upon me." (See 1 Thessalonians 5:3)
The Covenant of Grace
God has placed Himself under no obligation, by any promise, to keep any natural man out of hell. God certainly has made no promises, either of eternal life or of any deliverance or preservation from eternal death, except those that are contained in the covenant of grace, the promises that are given in Christ, in whom all the promises are yea and amen. (See 2 Corinthians 1:20.) But, surely, they who are not the children of the covenant, who do not believe in any of the promises, and who have no interest in the Mediator of the covenant, have no interest in the promises of the covenant of grace.
Consequently, whatever some people have imagined and pretended to understand about the promises made to natural men’s earnest seeking and knocking, it is clear and manifest that, whatever pains a natural man takes in religion, whatever prayers he makes, until he believes in Christ, God is under no manner of obligation to keep him from eternal destruction for even a moment.
Thus it is that natural men are held in the hand of God, over the pit of hell; they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked. His anger is as great toward them as it is toward those who are actually suffering the executions and fierceness of His wrath in hell. These natural men have done nothing at all to appease or abate that anger, and God is not in the least bound by any promise to hold them up.
The Devil is waiting for them; hell is gaping for them; the flames gather and flash about them, and would prefer to lay hold of them and swallow them up. The fire pent up in their own hearts is struggling to break out; and they have no interest in any Mediator. There are no means within reach that can be any security to them. In short, they have no refuge, nothing to take hold of. All that preserves them every moment is the sovereign, all-powerful will, the uncovenanted, unobliged forbearance, of an incensed God.