Another year has almost passed. That is a statement that carries great significance. It means that for a year the whole world has hastened from the alpha to the omega; and the end is near. It means too that we have sped ahead on the line that runs to our death; and that end also is near.
But of more significance is the fact that this year which has nearly sped by, we have made brim full. We have filled it to capacity, so that there is no more room left. We have crowded it to the full. Even though it seemed that there were moments that were left vacant, they were filled nevertheless. We filled them with sorrow and gladness, with sickness and health, etc. Still more significant, we filled them with our toiling and laboring, etc. And never was there a moment, whether awake or asleep, that we were quiet.
How we hastened to crowd this year full. What did you do, and what did I do in this year? And why did you do it, and why did I do it? What were our motives? What end did we have in view as we hastened and toiled and labored and struggled? What did we want, what did we seek? And what did we accomplish? And what will our work mean when we take that work into the day when all shall be uncovered, when every act, and motive shall be uncovered in the day of judgment?
It is well, when we consider the things that are passed, that we can take refuge in the cross; and we cannot have peace unless we take also the present moment to the cross. But there is a more important question yet. When we look back upon the activity in the year that is nearly gone, the question must be asked, what is the ultimate purpose of it all? Is it all vanity? Is there no design, no purpose in all that was accomplished? Is there a pattern into which all the steps which we have taken in the year gone by fit?
To that question we have the answer in our text. "Man's steps," that is the meaning, "are of the Lord; how can a man than understand his own way?"
My text, as is often the case in Scripture, speaks of man's life under the figure of a traveling man on his way; and there are in that figure of the way, in Scripture, especially three motions. In the first place, there is that figure of the way the thought of direction; there is direction in the way which we travel. When the Bible uses the figure of a way it wants to emphasize that we are traveling in a certain direction. In the second place, there is in that figure of a way the idea of destination; we are headed for a certain goal. In the third place, there is in that figure the idea of constant progress; and that has been characteristic of the year that has nearly passed. We have been traveling in a certain direction toward a definite goal with constant progress.
Notice that in the text distinction is made between steps and the way.
By steps are meant all the individual acts we perform at any given moment. They are really one continuous progress; yet they are so many steps. Every thought is a step by which we travel in a certain direction; and to a certain end. Every secret motive is a step on the way. We are continually stepping. We are continually going on, and our individual acts are steps on the way. Every look of the eye, every word we speak, every act we perform, is a step on the way of life; and all these different steps, acts, constitute our way.
Some steps are more important than others. There are in life certain steps that stand out in our life; but, although life seems to be just a few outstanding steps, these outstanding steps are all linked together by all the little steps we take.
But that is not all. Our individual way is linked up with the way of everyone else. Men do not simply step along beside each other; the way and the steps and the acts of one often determine the way and the steps and the acts of the other. If I review my way, I find that my way was determined for me even before I was born. It was determined for me by my father and my mother; and it was determined by what they did. And that way was determined for me for a long time when I was a child; it was determined where I should go to school, what training I should receive, etc.
In the second place, we find that the steps we take determine the steps of others; our life is determined by that of others. So it with the steps of the individual upon the life of the world as a whole. This is very evident today. Think of all the lives that have been affected by Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito, Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt. In fact, there was one man, by whose step the whole life of the world was determined, by one man sin entered into the world; and that one step of that one man determined the whole of what we call history.
Now the text says, "No man knows his own way." That is the meaning of the rhetorical question at the end of the text.
The Hebrew word for know really means "to discern," to distinguish," so that the text really emphasizes the fact that man cannot discern his own way while he is walking. He is walking, but he cannot see the road ahead. He is walking in darkness. How can a man know his own way? So that really, except by the faith of a believer, a man who walks in the world is taking a risk. He cannot see the road ahead. He cannot see where he is going.
That is true not only of little men, but also of the big men of this world. How can a man know his own way? That is, how can he distinguish the road ahead? He cannot see the road on which he is traveling.
That this is true is evident if we consider that man cannot see ahead one second. Man is always walking on a knife's edge. That knife's edge on which man is walking we call the present. The present is nothing. It is nothing but a coming together of the past and the future. You cannot call one second your own. The curtain of the future hangs right before the eyes of man, something which is exaggerated by the fact that man is walking in the midst of death. The past is no more; the future is not yet; and the present is but the split second where past and future meet.
How can a man know his own way in that darkness? Yes, you say, but he can figure it out. He can tell by what he does--the direction he wants to take; and the road he wants to travel.
But that is not so. He can see a little of it; he can see a little of the consequences of what he does. He is like the man traveling by the light of his automobile. Some have their bright lights one, some have their dim lights on; but none can see the road ahead. Some have their dim lights on, and they cannot see anything of what is ahead. Some have on their brights, and we call them farsighted men. But none can see ahead. For instance, when Joseph's brothers sold him into Egypt, they did not know the way. They saw a little of it, they saw how they could rid themselves of a nuisance; but that their act led into the direction of Joseph's glory and the saving of much people alive, that they did not see. The distant road they knew nothing of.
When Judas sold his master into the hands of wicked men he saw a little light. He saw a little money. He saw thirty pieces of silver; but he did not see that by his treachery the blood of atonement would be shed. How can a man know his own way? That is true of you and me, because we cannot discern the way, and because we have no control over the circumstances that control our way. How can a man know his own way?
One of the most important steps of my life was the step I took when I came to this country. I could see a little of it, just enough to make me go. I could see that I could better myself, that I would have a better living; but I could not see the road. Had I not gone, I would not be preaching; there would have been no Protestant Reformed Churches.
How can a man know his own way? That is true of Hitler, of Mussolini, of Hirohito, of Churchill, of Roosevelt. That is true of devils and of angels. How can a man know his own way? Whether he goes, what lies behind his own vision, he cannot distinguish. Man walks ahead in darkness.
Of Jehovah are man's steps. I find peace in the fact that my steps, and the steps of all men, are of Jehovah. That stands there in all its meaning.
It is true that our steps are also our own. Our steps are not of Jehovah in the sense that, shutout from without, He compels us to take these steps; but they are determined by Jehovah.
When Judas betrayed the Lord, his steps were of Jehovah. When the Sanhedrin and the Roman governor and Herod combined against Christ, their steps were of Jehovah. He determined them. And not only did He determine them, but He caused them.
Man is never free in the sense that he acts independent of God. There is never a step that man takes independent of God. Whether I go to the right or to the left is determined by Jehovah. Oh, I go to the right or left; that causes my responsibility--but my steps are of Jehovah. As He has determined my way, so He directs my steps through that way.
He has the pattern of the whole; and of every detail of the way in his counsel; and the way of every creature is directed as He has purposed.
And the direction of the way of every man is such that he must reach his goal. Of Jehovah are the steps of every man. Thus man cannot know his own way.
That is our place tonight. That is so in our year, 1942, no matter from what viewpoint I look at it, if I cannot leave the steps of all men with Jehovah. That is true of my own steps; I can have no peace with my own life and with my steps.
And now I am not only thinking of sinfulness with which they were polluted, but from the viewpoint of the fact that I do not know what steps I took; and whither they led, if I cannot say that they are of Jehovah. I could have no peace when I look at the world if men took steps.
When I look at the steps of 1942 and see how they have set the world ablaze, I could have no peace if these steps were not of Jehovah. But we know that pattern. And I know that Jehovah's pattern is this, that He has arranged all things so that they must be to the glory of his name in Christ. And that that glory of His name in Christ may shine through the Church. And I know that He has arranged all things around that one purpose, in order that the glory of God, and of Christ, and of the Church may be full.
Blessed is he that puts his trust in Jehovah. For then he may say that all is absolutely well.
(Sermon preached by Rev. Herman Hoeksema in the First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan on December 31, 1942)