The passing of another year reminds us forcefully that we are all creatures of time. Time-the unrelenting passing of moments, the changing of the present to the past-is a creation of God. And as with all of His other creations, time serves a purpose. Time is the workbench on which God prepares all men and women for eternity. Time is not some train which we ride going somewhere, somehow, by some way. It is not true that the earth is simply a spaceship hurtling through the galaxies somewhere. It is not true that each man is carving out his own niche or seeking his own fate. But time is in the hand of God to prepare all men and women for eternity. Each moment, in some way or another, shapes a person for eternity. That is true for all. It is true for the unbelieving and impenitent. Their life also relates to eternity. That is frightening. But it is also true for the believing and repentant sinner. Life is not a vacuum. We are not simply in a waiting room, waiting for heaven. But the Word of God tells us that we are being conformed to and we are being molded after the image of Jesus Christ.
If you think that time is relatively unimportant, something you can simply spend and burn up, then you must cast that thought far from you. That thought is your enemy. Each second somehow relates to eternity. There is no such thing as an unimportant moment.
In the Word of God we read of God’s work in time, a work of grace for His children. One of the most beautiful figures in God’s Word is found in Jeremiah 48:11. We read there, “Moab hath been at ease from his youth, and he hath settled on his lees, and hath not been emptied from vessel to vessel, neither hath he gone into captivity: therefore his taste remained in him, and his scent is not changed.” Jeremiah, in the last chapters of his prophecy, foretells the judgment which is awaiting heathen nations. In chapter 48 he is talking about Moab. Moab was of the same bloodline as Israel. They were the descendants of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. But there was spiritual enmity between Moab and Israel. Moab had never ceased to plot against God’s people. Moab was, mostly, prosperous, fortified, wealthy. They had filled their coffers with the things of this earth. Our text says that Moab has been at ease from her youth. From her very childhood as a nation she had been left alone in prosperity. And she had trusted more and more in her strength and resources.
Then, using the figure of wine-making, God tells us that Moab had not been emptied from vessel to vessel but had been allowed to settle upon the lees or the dregs, and, therefore, they had become bitter in taste and sour in smelling. Left in their prosperity for the most part, given ease, they are now rocked in carnality. But it is implied that for God’s people the very opposite has been the case. God has not been dealing with them so, He has not left His people at ease, He has not allowed them to settle down upon the lees or the dregs of their own indifference. But He has been busy with them, emptying them from vessel to vessel. He has sent them into captivity. And their scent and their taste have changed. God there compares Himself to a master wine-maker, a master husbandman. God has been at work with His people. And out of love and mercy He has been refining them, purifying them, in order that they might come forth sweet-smelling and pleasant to His own taste. God has a purpose with time. God’s purpose is that especially through adversities and trials and through aging He will sift His people, He will mold and prepare His people in order that, at last, they might fill His courts with a holy scent and be pleasing to His taste.
A figure, I said, is being used in that verse of the process of wine-making. Moab, we read, has settled on her lees and has not been emptied from vessel to vessel. Fermenting wine, from time to time, must be emptied from one wooden vat into another, for, in the process of fermentation, a bitter substance called the lees or dregs, a sediment, develops and drops to the bottom of the vat or clings to the sides. Those lees or dregs are bitter. In Psalm 75:8 God refers to the dregs or bitter wrath that the wicked must drink. It is a very bitter substance, lees or dregs, which remain in the vat. And the wine itself will take on that bitter taste and emit an unpleasant scent. That is why Jeremiah says of Moab that her taste remains in her. It has not changed. It has not improved. Its scent has become strong, foul, and bitter.
But a wine-maker will, at set times, pour the contents of one vessel into another, strain that liquid, and put it into a clean vat in order that the lees might be strained out. This is repeated time after time until the fermentation process is finished and a tasty, pleasant-smelling wine comes forth. Even then, that wine purified of the lees must not simply be left alone, but it must again be placed into a glass vessel or it will take on the taste and smell of the wooden vat. A process of purification is taking place, of refining.
The lees there refer to our sins, especially the sins of apathy and of indifference, the sins in which we are willing to sit still. To be settled down on our lees is to become comfortable with our sins. We become unconcerned. It really does not burn in our hearts that we have those sins that we are committing. In Zephaniah 1:12 the prophet speaks of Israel’s spiritual indifference in these words: “And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The LORD will not do good, neither will he do evil.” Lees. Dregs. Spiritual indifference. At ease, undisturbed with besetting sins, allowing the mold of apathy to grow thick on the sides of the heart. And the result is that all of our life takes on that taste, that smell of indifference. It leaves off a bitter and foul smell in God’s nostrils, a rancid taste in His mouth.
But God will not allow that in His children. So He empties us from vessel to vessel. He upsets our life. He sends sickness. He sends the suddenness of death. He sends hardships. He sends troubles. Perhaps depression, widowhood, waywardness of our children. What the Bible calls trial, affliction, and tribulation. Why? Constantly to purify us from the bitterness of our own sins, to sanctify, to make us holy or, if you will, to make us taste good to Him and to be a pleasant smell to Him. God does not let you rest on your lees. But He empties you from vessel to vessel, affliction to affliction, so that the bitter taste of sin may not remain in you and take over, so that your spiritual taste may not be displeasing to His mouth, but that you might be changed to the sweetness of holiness.
Although that is very painful and very frightening to us, it is necessary. And it is most gracious. It is the most important work of God in time. It is the most important work that God does for you when He empties you from one vessel to another.
Looking at our lives from our eye of the flesh, we worry when the Lord sends us trials and problems, sickness and death. We say, what will we do? But, looking at it spiritually, I see that the very worst thing for me is not the future testings that must come. The worst thing for me would be that I would be left alone and allowed to settle on my own ease. Bad times spiritually for me are the times when I see little outward need for me to call upon God. We like to put up our “Do not disturb” signs before heaven. We crave our own ease. We do not want to be put down into captivity. Over those things that matter to us in the home, family, health, looks, we say, “Lord, don’t upset that!” Like Moab we want to be at ease in our own way.
To be emptied from vessel to vessel in health? To be emptied in our income? To be taken away from mental happiness? To be given more children? We say, Oh, no, don’t do that Lord! The Lord sends to us adversity. And we say, Lord, bring it back the way it was before. Or we say, Lord, I’ve been through enough now; isn’t it enough? Again and again, one thing after another in my life? Beloved, it is necessary that God empty you from one vessel to another vessel, because, without that work of God’s wisdom and skill and grace, you would become settled down in your sins and you would become bitter in His taste. Our lives would take on a rancor taste and a putrid smell.
It is very true, you know. David says in Psalm 30, At one time I boasted. I said in my prosperity, I shall never be moved. I soon was sorely troubled. I sought Jehovah’s grace. Had God left David in the spacious vessel of prosperity, the bitter dregs of self-boasting would have made him obnoxious both to God and to others. So God hid His face in order that David might be emptied of that self-boasting and learn to seek Jehovah’s grace.
We read of this time after time in the Scriptures. We read of this in the life of Old Testament believers-about the bitter lees of their self-complacency, of the fact that they would fall into periods of proud indifference to God. They thought that their life was going along fine without Him. Then they would be emptied into the vessels of affliction and be purified from such self-complacency. It would become, then, a delight to do God’s law. And it would become a joy for them to obey God. Do you know this? Do you cling to one vessel? Do you want your own ease, your own way? Is the most important thing in your life that your will be done? You could not imagine your life being happy if your will is not being done? Then you want simply to settle down upon your own lees and the bitterness of your own complacency before God will soon infect the taste of your whole life. God needs to scrape away the mold. He needs to strain out the self-complacency.
It can be true in Christian families. Our families need refining and polishing. Let us not resist this work of God. Let us not fail to see how God does it. Let us teach our children that the worst thing in life is when one’s own sinful will has its way. The worst thing in life is not adversity.
There remains in us as Christian families much that is of the world. There is much of the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. We have this urban ideal. We say that there should be no cloudy days. There ought to be more of the things of this life. And there is no end to it. Two hundred, three hundred, four hundred thousand dollars a year, cars and cars and more cars, and things of this life. Now, there is nothing wrong with earthly things. But is that what you think your life is? Have you settled down into your comfortable couch and do you believe that the way your life, with all of its plush luxuries, is what you absolutely need? What if God were to send cancer, sickness, the birth defect of a child? Do you say, “I can’t see any good in that. It is just more for me to deal with.” Or do you say, “Oh, it is good that I am afflicted, that I might learn to find my joy and my trust in God which will never fade away. It is good that God empties our family from vessel to vessel.” God is blessing us when He does not let us drift into materialism but keeps us close to the worship of God and to a holy walk of life.
It is very true for us also as churches of Jesus Christ. How necessary it is! Also churches sometimes collect sediment and dregs and lees. And if allowed to remain, it begins to affect the children. Soon the church gives off a bad taste to God. So the church must exercise discipline. There must be broader church discipline which does not soft pedal and minimize false doctrine and an evil walk of life. When the church begins to look like the world, then God, in His love, will purify that church and will disturb their ease. He will not allow His people to settle down on the lees of indifference.
God says that this has not been done to Moab. God is speaking this verse as an explanation to Israel. Apparently Moab, their neighbor who worshiped idols and was constantly plotting to have Israel done in, prospered in wealth and peace, comparatively speaking. Although Moab had known a few dark days, yet, compared to Israel, ancient Moab had been at ease from her youth, from her childhood. When you looked at Israel from her childhood to her adult years you would have to say, in the words of Psalm 129, “many a time have they afflicted me from my youth, … yet they have not prevailed against me.” According to our judgment, it appears that to be left at one’s ease is a sign of favor. And to be constantly unsettled and to be turned upside-down is a sign of God’s disfavor. But now God says to Israel, “That is the judgment of your human eyes. It is the very opposite. For a person to be left alone and at ease, given prosperity, is not a sign of God’s favor.” In Moab’s case it was leading them to be a foul, bitter, rancid nation before God. Settled down upon her lees? Moab was secure in her sins, became sensual in her prosperity, thought her strength was in herself and in material things, and was led to utter destruction.
To be left to your own ease is not a sign of grace.
A little girl left alone from her childhood, not emptied from vessel to vessel by the hands of father’s discipline and mother’s correction-there is nothing in that little girl’s life to upset her little will. She is left in her selfish, vain ways, and her own temper tantrums. She grows up to be covered up with the lees and dregs of jealousy, envy, and temper. She becomes a catty, calculating, self-serving woman. Then she enters into marriage for herself. And she brings up children like her.
A little boy, a young man, left on his lees, allowed to be careless, lazy, flippant, materialistic, has everything his own way, whatever he would want? He grows up covered with mold, with spiritual fungi, and the smell of irresponsibility.
A family prospers, treasures increase. And in those treasures they forget in their heart the Lord God and spend night after night after night in front of the TV and less and less and less with the Word of God. And the life of ease spills over into Sunday. Soon there is no time for church.
It is a work of grace to empty you from vessel to vessel.
You see, grace readjusts our thinking. It gives us to see life for what it is. We understand then that God must prepare us. God must send us through a process of purification. God must prepare us for our heavenly home. Job was emptied from a richly decorated and splendid vessel of tremendous wealth and ten loving children into a vessel so narrow that he would only sit in it by himself in his misery. He still lived, but he had no comforts of life. Yet, though all of that happened, God was teaching him wonderful lessons. And Job came out of that vessel of affliction a stronger man of faith and with deeper understanding of God’s ways. He would never have learned those things if he had been left alone. He needed to be emptied from vessel to vessel.
This is the work of grace which is working a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, as the apostle says in II Corinthians 4:17, 18. Do not look simply at your trial, at your affliction, at your hardship as the wrath of God upon you. Do not say, with Asaph in Psalm 73, “Clean hands are worthless and a pure heart is vain.” Whatever God does to His people in Christ is done in grace to polish, to refine, to prepare for glory. Having begotten us to be His children, the almighty God will not rest until He leads us into those mansions prepared for us by Jesus Christ. He will not rest until we are prepared for our place in that mansion. If we are left in our ease, if we are left in our sinful self-complacency, we shall not be prepared for that place in glory. We need to be emptied from vessel to vessel. That is the grace of God.
God desires good wine, something pleasing to His taste, something pleasing to His nostrils. He is working to change the way you taste and the way you smell. Just like a good wine-maker is working on his wine, He wishes to smell from you the scent of trust. He wishes to taste from you the taste of obedience and love. He wishes to rid you of the bitter lees of sin. So He empties you from health to sickness, from marriage to widowhood, from your idea of what is right and the way things have to go to the most burdensome way for you. And, one day, He will pour you into a vessel called “death” where He will strain out all of sin and the power of sin. And you will be most precious to His sight and most pleasing to His smell and most wonderful to His taste.
He exercises much care over you. That is why He empties you at the right time from vessel to vessel. And He will disturb you, He will make you ill at ease with your sin. You will find that He puts into your soul the desire to have the bitterness of sin removed. Do not envy those who are at ease with their sins, who do not seem to be bothered by their sins, who say to you that you have too many hangups. Be thankful that He disturbs your life, that He sends you sorrow and affliction, that He sends His Word to trouble your conscience, that He raises up men in the church who will not compromise but preach the Word of God to you.
God does this in love. God does this because in this present time, as a perfect husbandman, He is preparing everything that will be taken into His eternal home. He is preparing you. Rejoice when your life is emptied from vessel to vessel. It is a work of His grace and love. He is preparing you for a time when time will be no more. It will have served God’s purpose, when He will empty you at last into a vessel of pure mercy in heaven, where you shall be a sweet taste and a pleasant smell to God.
Let us pray.
Father, we thank Thee for Thy Word. Empty us from vessel to vessel that we might be pleasing to Thee. Amen.