by Alexander Whyte
'The visual image' of zeal, as Coleridge calls it, is a boiling pot. Zew, to boil, is the Greek root of our well-known English word zeal. And then, as is the way with all such like words, zeal soon passes over from the material and the sensible world into the intellectual and the moral and the spiritual world. Till we find this so vivid word exclusively made use of to describe a boiling heart; a heart boiling up and boiling over with the intense heat of its own affections, and passions, and emotions. Properly speaking, there is only one kind of boiling water, but there are two entirely opposite kinds of boiling blood. There is the boiling of the blood of a bad heart, and there is the boiling of the blood of a good heart, with all the wholly opposite results that boil over from these so opposite boiling hearts. Now let us glance, to begin with, at some of the bad kinds of boiling hearts, so as to clear our way to the good kinds. To such good kinds as the boiling heart of our Lord, when He made a scourge of small cords and cleansed the temple, till His disciples remembered that it was written - The zeal of Thine house hath eaten me up.
The first time that the word zeal, in its bad sense, occurs in Holy Scripture, is in the case of King Saul, that so hot-headed and so God-abandoned man. In his sinful zeal, and in the teeth of the friendly treaty that had been made with the Gibeonites, Saul slew those allies of Israel, and thus brought untold trouble on himself, on his family, and on his people. 'Come,' said King Jehu also, 'and see my zeal for the Lord.' But all the time Jehu's zeal was wholly for himself, and not for the Lord at all. Jehu was zealous indeed for the Lord's commandments, but all he did was in order that he might be seen of men. As was to be expected we come often both on the name zeal and on the thing itself in the epistles of Paul, that most hot-hearted of men. And both the name of zeal and the thing occur, sometimes in a bad sense, and sometimes in a good sense, in the ardent pages of the Apostle. Speaking in one place of the unconverted Jews, the apostle says - 'I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.' A most pungent, and far-reaching, and much-needed condemnation. For absolutely all the superstitions, and almost all the persecutions, and almost all the divisions that have desolated the Church of Christ from that day to this, are to be traced up to this, are to be traced up to this same wickedness-working zeal without knowledge. And then with all his rare self-knowledge, and with all his noble honesty of conscience, the Apostle discovers and confesses and denounces that same wicked heat in his own heart. 'Beyond measure I persecuted the Church of God, and wasted it. Being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers.' 'Zeal without knowledge,' says John Foster, in a strong sermon of his on this subject, 'has been one of the most dreadful pests that has ever afflicted the earth. Zeal without knowledge has been the very strength, and soul, and animating demon, of every active evil. View zeal without knowledge in connection with any evil passion; in connection with hatred, with revenge, with love of power, and see what woe it will work!' Again, there is another evil zeal that is not real zeal at all, but is only so much bad temper. This spurious and hypocritical zeal is loud and ostentatious in its defense of this truth and that duty. But all the time, at his heart of hearts, truth and duty are nothing to that bad man but a mere occasion for his own maliciousness and ill-will. Our evil hearts are in nothing more deceitful to ourselves, or more wicked in the sight of God, than just in the way we cloke over our own wicked passions with a mask of holy zeal. When, all the time, underneath that mask, there is little or nothing else but our own malevolence. 'Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of,' says our Lord to us. Telling us that if we but knew ourselves, we would see ourselves to be of the spirit of the
Then again there is a true but a mischievously disproportionate zeal widespread even among the best men. A zeal that is quite out of all keeping with the proper value of the thing pursued, or defended, as the case may be. The thing he takes up may be true enough and good enough so far as it goes, but it is not everything, as the extravagant zealot thinks it is, and will thrust it down your throat that it is. And then the worst of all zeals surely, is that pestiferous zeal for our own party, which is so universal, and is so popular, and is so well-paid among us. This is a zeal also that is not seldom without knowledge, and is determined to remain so. But its real wickedness stands in this rather, that it is absolutely without truth, without justice, and without love. Truth and justice and love live in another world altogether than that world from which that man's so selfish and so truculent zeal is kindled and fed and paid. The absolutely savage zeal of our political, and ecclesiastical, and all our other parties, is the scandal of our public life. And it is enough to drive all good men out of public life altogether. My brethren, I beseech you to watch and pray and labor to keep your hearts and your hands clean of all the detestable vices that are constantly engendered in your hearts by the heat of party spirit. As clean, that is, as is possible in this so divided-up, so hating, and so hateful, and so intolerant world. And, where it is simply not possible always to keep yourselves pure under the constant pressure of this temptation; then, let all these evil things both in you and in your opponents work in you a more and more weaned, and a more and more broken heart. Always comforting yourselves with this assurance that it is to produce for Himself a people of such weaned and broken hearts that the God of truth and of peace and of love permits such party spirit to poison this world. It is an ennobling and an all-conquering thought that God in His grace has undertaken to make all things, and the heat of party spirit among them, to work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.
But it is time to turn to the many good kinds of zeal that are set before us in Holy Scripture. And there are some magnificent anthropomorphisms paid to a holy zeal in the Old Testament and especially in the prophet Isaiah. As thus - 'Of the increase of His government and peace, there shall be no end. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will perform this.' And this - 'He put on righteousness for a breastplate, and an helmet of salvation upon His head; and He put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and was clad with zeal as with a cloke.' And again - 'Look down from heaven, and behold from the habitation of Thy holiness and of Thy glory; where is Thy zeal and Thy strength, the sounding of Thy bowels, and of Thy mercies toward me? Are they restrained?' And then in the New Testament we are familiar with such fine uses of the figure as these: - 'Yea, what fear; yea, what vehement desire; yea, what zeal; yea, what revenge.' And again - 'Who gave Himself for us that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.' And once more - 'As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten; be zealous, therefore, and repent.'
Matthew Henry is always the most shrewd and the most natural and the most forcible of commentators. 'The disciples,' he says, 'were greatly surprised and disconcerted to see the Lamb of God in such a heat that day in the temple. And to see Him, whom they believed to be the King of Israel, taking so little of His kingly state upon Himself as to make, and with His own hands, a scourge of small cords, and with that scourge to drive the money-changers out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen. And, actually, to pour out the changers' money, and overthrow their tables, and all with His own hands. The disciples did not know where to look, or what to say, till this Messianic Psalm came to their minds, the zeal of Thine house hath eaten Me up.'
Now, to be eaten up of anything is to this day a very arresting expression. It must have been a very arresting expression when it was first employed. And the arresting original has been rendered literally, and has been used liberally, in our own language ever since. It is indeed a very arresting and even startling thing to hear it said of our Lord that anything could actually eat Him up. Yes; but look at Him. Go back and look at Him that day in the temple. Think you see Him. Think you stand beside Him. Think who He is, and what is His real errand in this world. And the more you think about Him, and the closer you come up to Him, and the better you see Him, the better will you enter into this startling language concerning Him. Yes; such was the dreadful desecration of His Father's house that day, that He was simply eaten up with His indignation at it all. That is to say, all sense of fear at what the rulers of the temple might do to Him was eaten up in our Lord that day. All sense of shame also at what He felt compelled to do was eaten up. All thought and all feeling of the unseemliness of such as He was, condescending to such an act as that in public was all eaten up. All His lamblike meekness also was for the moment wholly eaten up. All these things, and everything else, was wholly eaten up, as the text has it. Such was the wrath of the Lamb at the scene He saw going on in His Father's house that day.
Now was that a sudden or an occasional and a soon-exhausted ebullition of early zeal on the part of our Lord. Far from that. For just as He began His Messianic ministry in the temple that day, so He carried on His whole ministry, till at last His all-consuming zeal carried Him up to the cross. From the beginning to the end of His life on earth our Lord had no heart left for anything but to fulfil His Messianic mission. In His own words about Himself His meat and His drink was to finish His Messianic work. It was His holy zeal that both sustained Him and impelled Him all through His life, and the same ruling passion was at its greatest strength in His death. His disciples remembered that Old Testament text in the temple that day. And having once remembered it they were never let forget it again, all the time they companied with Him. And how well they must have remembered it, and must have said it to one another, as they all forsook Him and fled! The zeal of His Father's house hath eaten Him up! they must have said to themselves as they stood afar off and saw His crucifixion consummated.
And then no sooner were the disciples left alone, and no sooner were they all filled with the Holy Ghost, than their Risen Lord demanded of them every day what they had seen in Him every day. The servants were all to be, in this matter also, as their Master. For as He was simply eaten up of His Messianic office, so were they to be eaten up of their Apostolic office. And it was so, in their measure, with them all. Till in their zeal even unto death, they had overcome and had overthrown the Pagan world, and had achieved the spread and the establishment of the Church of Christ. And especially that Apostle of His who had by far the most of his Master's heat of heart in him. You all know how Paul's hot heart absolutely ate him up. Jesus Christ so completely ate up Paul's whole heart that he had not an atom of heart left for anything else. Paul was so eaten up of Christ that he had no heart left for wife, or for child, or for fame, or for fatherland, or for any of those things that were eating up all other men in that day. Love of power had just eaten up Julius Caesar. Love of praise had just eaten up Tullius Cicero. Love of liberty had just eaten up Marcus Cato. And love of pleasure Mark Antony. But over against all those great men of that great day stands a far greater than any of them. And his unapproached greatness stands rooted and grounded in his all-consuming zeal for the Son of God, his Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. So absolutely eaten up was Paul of Jesus Christ that he but spake the simple truth about himself when he said such things as these - I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.' 'What things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.' 'To me to live is Christ and to die is gain.' O, greatest of men! O, best of men! O, happiest of men! O, most blessed of men! Well mayest thou appeal and say to all such cold-hearted creatures as we are - 'Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ!'
Now who here will accept Paul's lofty challenge? Who here is fired tonight with that magnificent emulation and ambition? Are you? Well, the thing is in your own hand. The torch to kindle your own heart to that heavenly heat is in your own hand. And that torch is this - Think about Christ. Just think about Christ, and that will do it. Thinking about one another; meditating on one another; imagining one another, - that makes your hearts hot towards one another. And so is it with your soul and Christ. Thinking about Him will do it. Meditating on Him will do it. Imagining you see Him will do it. 'My heart was hot within me. While I was musing, the fire burned,' says David. And as often as we muse on Christ the fire burns with us also. And the longer we muse on Him, and the deeper our musing goes, the more the fire burns. And this fire never sinks low, far less ever dies out, as long as we so muse. Think enough, meditating enough, musing enough on Christ, will do it. Thinking that always ends in prayer, and in praise, and in repentance unto life, and in ever new obedience, that will do it. Think you see Christ all through the Four Gospels. Think you see Him die at the end of the Four Gospels. Think you see Him rise again. Think you see Him ascend up into heaven. Think that it is the day of judgment. And think you see the books opened, - till you cry to Him continually day and night, Rock of Ages, cleft for me! You have it in your own hand to melt your heart of ice into one pool of holy love. Yes; if you like you can read, and think and pray yourselves into the possession of a heart as hot as Paul's heart. Ay, into a heart as eaten up of your Father's house on earth and in heaven as Christ's own heart was. For the same Holy Ghost who gave Christ His hot heart, and Paul his hot heart, is given to you also. The time is long till you come to that, but the thing is true. For, behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be; but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is. Be zealous, therefore, and repent.