Handful of Stars


5. Ebenezer Erskine's Text


It is a lovely Sunday afternoon in the early summer of the year 1690. The graceful and heathery path that winds its way along the banks of the Tweed, from the stately ruins of Melrose to the crumbling gables of Dryburgh, is in its glory. The wooded track by the waterside is luxuriating in bright sunshine, glowing colors and soft shadows. We are traversing one of the most charming and romantic districts that even Scotland can present. Here 'every field has its battle, every rivulet its song.' More than a century hence, this historic neighborhood is destined to furnish the home, and fire the fancy, of Sir Walter Scott; and here, beneath the vaulted aisle of Dryburgh's ancient abbey, he will find his last resting-place. But that time is not yet. Even now, however, in 1690, the hoary cloister is only a battered and weatherbeaten fragment. It is almost covered by the branches of the trees that, planted right against the walls, have spread their limbs like creepers over the mossy ruins, as though endeavoring to protect the venerable pile. And here, sitting on a huge slab that has fallen from the broken arch above, is a small boy of ten. His name is Ebenezer Erskine; he is the son of the minister of Chirnside. Like his father, he was born here at Dryburgh; and to-day the two are revisiting the neighborhood round which so many memories cluster. This morning the father, the Rev. Henry Erskine, has been catechizing a group of children at the kirk. He selected the questions in the Shorter Catechism that relate to the Ten Commandments; and the very first of the answers that his father then taught him has made a profound impression on Ebenezer's mind. The forty-third question runs: 'What is the preface to the Ten Commandments?' And the answer is: 'The preface to the Ten Commandments is in these words: "I am the Lord thy God which have brought thee out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage."' Other questions follow, and they, with their attendant answers, have been duly memorized. But they have failed to hold his thought. This one, however, refuses to be shaken off. He has, quite involuntarily, repeated it to himself a hundred times as he pushed his way through the heather to the mossy abbey. It sounds in his ears like a claim, a challenge, an insistent and imperative demand.

I am the Lord!

I am thy God!

The Lord! Thy God!

It is his first realization of the fact that he is not altogether his own.


Eighteen years have passed. He is now the minister of the Portmoak parish. But it is a poor business. 'I began my ministry,' he says, 'without much zeal, callously and mechanically, being swallowed up in unbelief and in rebellion against God.' He feels no enthusiasm for the Bible; indeed, the New Testament positively wearies him. His sermons are long and formal; he learns them by heart and repeats them parrot-fashion, taking care to look, not into the faces of his people, but at a certain nail in the opposite wall. Happily for himself and for the world, he has by this time married a wife to whom the truth is no stranger. For years, poor Mrs. Erskine has wept in secret over her husband's unregenerate heart and unspiritual ministry. But now a terrible sickness lays her low. Her brain is fevered; she raves in her delirium; her words are wild and passionate. Yet they are words that smite her husband's conscience and pierce his very soul. 'At last,' so runs the diary, 'the Lord was pleased to calm her spirit and give her a sweet serenity of mind. This, I think, was the first time that ever I felt the Lord touching my heart in a sensible manner. Her distress and her deliverance were blessed to me. Some few weeks after, she and I were sitting together in my study, and while we were conversing about the things of God, the Lord was pleased to rend the veil and to give me a glimmering view of salvation which made my soul acquiesce in Christ as the new and living way to glory.' The old text comes back to him.

'I am the Lord thy God!'

'I am the Lord thy God!'

Once more it sounds like a claim. And this time he yields. He makes his vow in writing. 'I offer myself up, soul and body, unto God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. I flee for shelter to the blood of Jesus. I will live to Him; I will die to Him. I take heaven and earth to witness that all I am and all I have are His.'

Thus, on August 26, 1708, Ebenezer Erskine makes his covenant. 'That night,' he used to say, 'I got my head out of Time into Eternity!'


Ten more years have passed. It is now 1718; Ebenezer Erskine is thirty-eight. Filled with concern for the souls of his people at Portmoak, he preaches a sermon on the text that had played so great a part in bringing his own spirit out of bondage.

'I am the Lord thy God!'

'I am the Lord thy God!'

As he preaches, the memory of his own experience rushes back upon him. His soul catches fire. He is one moment persuasive and the next peremptory. No sermon that he ever preached made a greater impression on his congregation; and, when it was printed, it proved to be the most effective and fruitful of all his publications.


Five and thirty further years have run their course. Mr. Erskine is now seventy-three. He has passed through the fires of persecution, and, in days of tumult and unrest, has proved himself a leader whom the people have delighted, at any cost, to follow. But his physical frame is exhausted. An illness overtakes him which, continuing for over a year, at last proves fatal. His elders drop in from time to time to read and pray with him. To-day one of them, the senior member of the little band, is moved, in taking farewell of his dying minister, to ask a question of him. After grasping the sick man's hand and moving towards the door, a sudden impulse seizes him and he returns to the bedside.

'You have often given us good advice, Mr. Erskine,' he says, 'as to what we should do with our souls in life and in death; may I ask what you are now doing with your own?'

'I am just doing with it,' the old man replies, 'what I did forty years ago; I am resting it on that word, "I am the Lord thy God!"'


Now what was it, I wonder, that Ebenezer Erskine saw in this string of monosyllables as he sat on the fallen slab beside the ruined abbey in 1690, as he sat conversing with his convalescent wife in 1708, as he preached with such passion in 1718, and as he lay dying in 1753? What, to him, was the significance of that great sentence that, as the catechism says, forms 'the preface to the Ten Commandments'? Ebenezer Erskine saw, underlying the words, two tremendous principles. They convinced him that the Center must always be greater than the Circumference and they convinced him that the Positive must always be greater than the Negative.

The Center must always be greater than the Circumference, for, without the center, there can be no circumference. And there, in the very first word of this 'preface to the Ten Commandments,' stands the august center around which all the mandates revolve. 'I am the Lord thy God.' 'I have many times essayed,' Luther tells us in his Table-Talk, 'thoroughly to investigate the Ten Commandments; but at the very outset--"I am the Lord thy God"--I stuck fast. That single word "I" put me to a non-plus.' I am not surprised. The man who would enter this Palace of Ten Chambers will find God awaiting him on the threshold; and he must make up his mind as to his relationship with Him before he can pass on to investigate the interior of the edifice. In learning his Shorter Catechism that Sunday morning at Dryburgh, Ebenezer Erskine, then a boy of ten, had come face to face with God; and he felt that he dared not proceed to the Circumference until his heart was in harmony with the Center.


He felt, too, that the Positive must precede the Negative. The person of the most High must come before the precepts of the Most High; the Thou Shalts must come before the Thou Shalt Nots. The superstructure of a personal religion cannot be reared on a foundation of negatives. Life can only be constructed positively. The soul cannot flourish on a principle of subtraction; it can only prosper on a principle of addition. It is at this point that we perpetrate one of our commonest blunders. Between Christmas Day and New Year's Day, we invariably frame a variety of good resolutions; we register a number of excellent resolves. But, for the most part, they come to nothing; and they come to nothing because they are so largely negative. 'I will never again do such-and-such a thing'; 'I will never again behave in such-and-such a way'; and so on. We have failed to discover the truth that gripped the soul of Ebenezer Erskine that day at Dryburgh. He saw, as he repeated to himself his catechism, that the Ten Commandments consist of three parts.

(1) The Preface--'I am the Lord thy God!'
(2) The Precepts--'Thou shalt ...'
(3) The Prohibitions--'Thou shall not ...'

Our New Year's resolutions assume that we should put third things first. We are wrong. As Ebenezer Erskine saw, we must put the Person before the Precepts, and the Precepts before the Prohibitions. The Center must come before the Circumference; the Positive before the Negative.

When, at the end of December, we pledge ourselves so desperately to do certain things no more, we entirely forget that our worst offenses do not consist in outraging the Thou Shalt Nots; our worst offenses consist in violating the Thou Shalts. The revolt of the soul against the divine Prohibitions is as nothing compared with the revolt of the soul against the divine Precepts; just as the revolt of the soul against the divine Precepts is as nothing compared with the revolt of the soul against the Divine Person. It is by a flash of real spiritual insight that, in the General Confession in the Church of England Prayer Book, the clause, 'We have left undone those things which we ought to have done,' precedes the clause, 'And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.' In his Ecce Homo, Sir John Seeley has pointed out the radical difference between the villains of the parables and the villains that figure in all other literature. In the typical novel the villain is a man who does what he ought not to do; in the tales that Jesus told the villain is a man who leaves undone what he ought to have done. 'The sinner whom Christ denounces,' says Sir John, 'is he who has done nothing; the priest and the Levite who passed by on the other side; the rich man who allowed the beggar to lie unhelped at his gate; the servant who hid in a napkin the talent intrusted to him; the unprofitable hireling who did only what it was his duty to do.' Christ's villains are the men who sin against the Person and the Precepts of the Most High; he scarcely notices the men who violate the Prohibitions. Yet it is of the Prohibitions that, when New Years come, we think so much.

At vesper-tide,
One virtuous and pure in heart did pray,
'Since none I wronged in deed or word to-day,
From whom should I crave pardon? Master, say.'

A voice replied:
'From the sad child whose joy thou hast not planned;
The goaded beast whose friend thou didst not stand;
The rose that died for water from thy hand.'

During a ministry of nearly thirty years, it has been my privilege and duty to deal with men and women of all kinds and conditions. I have attended hundreds of deathbeds. In reviewing those experiences to-day, I cannot remember a single case of a man who found it difficult to believe that God could forgive those things that he ought not to have done and had done; and I cannot recall a single case of a man who found it easy to believe that God could forgive those things that he ought to have done but had left undone. It is our sins against the divine Precepts that sting most venomously at the last:

'The sad, sad child whose joy thou hast not planned;
The goaded beast whose friend thou didst not stand;
The rose that died for water from thy hand!'

Ebenezer Erskine saw that day at Dryburgh that he must recognize the inspired order. He must bow first of all to the authority of the Divine Person; he must recognize the obligations involved in the Divine Precepts; and, after this, he must eschew those things that are forbidden by the Divine Prohibitions. That order he never forgot.


George Macdonald tells us how, when the Marquis of Lossie was dying, he sent post-haste for Mr. Graham, the devout schoolmaster. Mr. Graham knew his man and went cautiously to work.

'Are you satisfied with yourself my lord?'

'No, by God!'

'You would like to be better?'

'Yes; but how is a poor devil to get out of this infernal scrape?'

'Keep the commandments!'

'That's it, of course; but there's no time!'

'If there were but time to draw another breath, there would be time to begin!'

'How am I to begin? Which am I to begin with?'

'There is one commandment which includes all the rest!'

'Which is that?'

'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved!'

What did the schoolmaster mean? He meant that the Person must precede the Precepts, as the Precepts must precede the Prohibitions; he was insisting on the divine order; that was all. And I feel confident that that was the burden of that powerful sermon that Ebenezer Erskine preached to his people at Portmoak in 1718. His last illness, as I have said, continued for twelve months. It was in its earlier stages that the old elder asked his question and received his minister's testimony concerning the text. A year later Mr. Erskine referred to the words again. On the morning of the first of June, he awoke from a brief sleep, and, seeing his daughter, Mrs. Fisher, sitting reading by his bedside, he asked her the name of the book.

'I am reading one of your own sermons, father!'

'Which one?'

'The one on "I am the Lord thy God!"'

'Ah, lass,' he exclaimed, his face lighting up, as a wave of sacred memories swept over him, 'that is the best sermon ever I preached!'

A few minutes later he closed his eyes, slipped his hand under his cheek, composed himself on his pillow, and ceased to breathe. The noble spirit of Ebenezer Erskine was with God.

Ebenezer Erskine reminds me of his great predecessor, Samuel Rutherford. When Rutherford was staying for a while at the house of James Guthrie, the maid was surprised at hearing a voice in his room. She had supposed he was alone. Moved by curiosity, she crept to his door. She then discovered that Rutherford was in prayer. He walked up and down the room, exclaiming, 'O Lord, make me to believe in Thee!' Then, after a pause, he moved to and fro again, crying, 'O Lord, make me to love Thee!' And, after a second rest, he rose again, praying, 'O Lord, make me to keep all Thy commandments!' Rutherford, like Erskine a generation later, had grasped the spiritual significance of the divine order.

'Make me to believe in Thee!'--the commandment that, as the schoolmaster told the Marquis, includes all the commandments!

'Make me to love Thee!'--for love, as Jesus told the rich young ruler, is the fulfilment of the whole law.

'Make me to obey all Thy commandments!'

The man who learns the Ten Commandments at the school of Samuel Rutherford or at the school of Ebenezer Erskine will see a shining path that runs from Mount Sinai right up to the Cross and on through the gates of pearl into the City of God.