We have in these verses,
I. The application that was made to Christ, very unseasonably, by one of his hearers, desiring him to interpose between him and his brother in a matter that concerned the estate of the family (Luke 12:13): “Master, speak to my brother; speak as a prophet, speak as a king, speak with authority; he is one that will have regard to what thou sayest; speak to him, that he divide the inheritance with me.” Now, 1. Some think that his brother did him wrong, and that he appealed to Christ to right him, because he knew the law was costly. His brother was such a one as the Jews called Ben-hamesen—a son of violence, that took not only his own part of the estate, but his brother’s too, and forcibly detained it from him. Such brethren there are in the world, who have no sense at all either of natural equity or natural affection, who make a prey of those whom they ought to patronize and protect. They who are so wronged have God to go to, who will execute judgment and justice for those that are oppressed. 2. Others think that he had a mind to do his brother wrong, and would have Christ to assist him; that, whereas the law gave the elder brother a double portion of the estate, and the father himself could not dispose of what he had but by that rule (Deut. 21:16, 17), he would have Christ to alter that law, and oblige his brother, who perhaps was a follower of Christ at large, to divide the inheritance equally with him, in gavel-kind, share and share alike, and to allot him as much as his elder brother. I suspect that this was the case, because Christ takes occasion from it to warn against covetousness, pleonexia—a desire of having more, more than God in his providence has allotted us. It was not a lawful desire of getting his own, but a sinful desire of getting more than his own.
II. Christ’s refusal to interpose in this matter (Luke 12:14): Man, who made me a judge or divider over you? In matters of this nature, Christ will not assume either a legislative power to alter the settled rule of inheritances, or a judicial power to determine controversies concerning them. He could have done the judge’s part, and the lawyer’s, as well as he did the physician’s, and have ended suits at law as happily as he did diseases; but he would not, for it was not in his commission: Who made me a judge? Probably he refers to the indignity done to Moses by his brethren in Egypt, with which Stephen upbraided the Jews, Acts 7:27, 35. “If I should offer to do this, you would taunt me as you did Moses, Who made thee a judge or a divider?” He corrects the man’s mistake, will not admit his appeal (it was coram non judice—not before the proper judge), and so dismisses his bill. If he had come to him to desire him to assist his pursuit of the heavenly inheritance, Christ would have given him his best help; but as to this matter he has nothing to do: Who made me a judge? Note, Jesus Christ was no usurper; he took no honour, no power, to himself, but what was given him, Heb. 5:5. Whatever he did, he could tell by what authority he did it, and who gave him that authority. Now this shows us what is the nature and constitution of Christ’s kingdom. It is a spiritual kingdom, and not of this world. 1. It does not interfere with civil powers, nor take the authority of princes out of their hands. Christianity leaves the matter as it found it, as to civil power. 2. It does not intermeddle with civil rights; it obliges all to do justly, according to the settled rules of equity, but dominion is not founded in grace. 3. It does not encourage our expectations of worldly advantages by our religion. If this man will be a disciple of Christ, and expects that in consideration of this Christ should give him his brother’s estate, he is mistaken; the rewards of Christ’s disciples are of another nature. 4. It does not encourage our contests with our brethren, and our being rigorous and high in our demands, but rather, for peace’ sake, to recede from our right. 5. It does not allow ministers to entangle themselves in the affairs of this life (2 Tim. 2:4), to leave the word of God to serve tables. There are those whose business it is, let it be left to them, Tractent fabrilia fabri—Each workman to his proper craft.
III. The necessary caution which Christ took occasion from this to give to his hearers. Though he came not to be a divider of men’s estates, he came to be a director of their consciences about them, and would have all take heed of harbouring that corrupt principle which they saw to be in others the root of so much evil. Here is,
1. The caution itself (Luke 12:15): Take heed and beware of covetousness; horate—“Observe yourselves, keep a jealous eye upon your own hearts, lest covetous principles steal into them; and phylassesthe—preserve yourselves, keep a strict band upon your own hearts, lest covetous principles rule and give law in them.” Covetousness is a sin which we have need constantly to watch against, and therefore frequently to be warned against.
2. The reason of it, or an argument to enforce this caution: For a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth; that is, “our happiness and comfort do not depend upon our having a great deal of the wealth of this world.” (1.) The life of the soul, undoubtedly, does not depend upon it, and the soul is the man. The things of the world will not suit the nature of a soul, nor supply its needs, nor satisfy its desires, nor last so long as it will last. Nay, (2.) Even the life of the body and the happiness of that do not consist in an abundance of these things; for many live very contentedly and easily, and get through the world very comfortably, who have but a little of the wealth of it (a dinner of herbs with holy love is better than a feast of fat things); and, on the other hand, many live very miserably who have a great deal of the things of this world; they possess abundance, and yet have no comfort of it; they bereave their souls of good, Eccl. 4:8. Many who have abundance are discontented and fretful, as Ahab and Haman; and then what good does their abundance do them?
3. The illustration of this by a parable, the sum of which is to show the folly of carnal worldlings while they live, and their misery when they die, which is intended not only for a check to that man who came to Christ with an address about his estate, while he was in no care about his soul and another world, but for the enforcing of that necessary caution to us all, to take heed of covetousness. The parable gives us the life and death of a rich man, and leaves us to judge whether he was a happy man.
(1.) Here is an account of his worldly wealth and abundance (Luke 12:16): The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully, chora—regio—the country. He had a whole country to himself, a lordship of his own; he was a little prince. Observe, His wealth lay much in the fruits of the earth, for the king himself is served by the field, Eccl. 5:9. He had a great deal of ground, and his ground was fruitful; much would have more, and he had more. Note, The fruitfulness of the earth is a great blessing, but it is a blessing which God often gives plentifully to wicked men, to whom it is a snare, that we may not think to judge of his love or hatred by what is before us.
(2.) Here are the workings of his heart, in the midst of this abundance. We are here told what he thought within himself, Luke 12:17. Note, The God of heaven knows and observes whatever we think within ourselves, and we are accountable to him for it. He is both a discerner and judge of the thoughts and intents of the heart. We mistake if we imagine that thoughts are hid and thoughts are free. Let us here observe,
[1.] What his cares and concerns were. When he saw an extraordinary crop upon his ground, instead of thanking God for it, or rejoicing in the opportunity it would give him of doing the more good, he afflicts himself with this thought, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? He speaks as one at a loss, and full of perplexity. What shall I do now? The poorest beggar in the country, that did not know where to get a meal’s meat, could not have said a more anxious word. Disquieting care is the common fruit of an abundance of this world, and the common fault of those that have abundance. The more men have, the more perplexity they have with it, and the more solicitous they are to keep what they have and to add to it, how to spare and how to spend; so that even the abundance of the rich will not suffer them to sleep, for thinking what they shall do with what they have and how they shall dispose of it. The rich man seems to speak it with a sigh, What shall I do? And if you ask, Why, what is the matter? Truly he had abundance of wealth, and wants a place to put it in, that is all.
[2.] What his projects and purposes were, which were the result of his cares, and were indeed absurd and foolish like them (Luke 12:18): “This will I do, and it is the wisest course I can take, I will pull down my barns, for they are too little, and I will build greater, and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods, and then I shall be at ease.” Now here, First, It was folly for him to call the fruits of the ground his fruits and his goods. He seems to lay a pleasing emphasis upon that, my fruits and my goods; whereas what we have is but lent us for our use, the property is still in God; we are but stewards of our Lord’s goods, tenants at will of our Lord’s land. It is my corn (saith God) and my wine, Hos. 2:8, 9. Secondly, It was folly for him to hoard up what he had, and then to think it well bestowed. There will I bestow it all; as if none must be bestowed upon the poor, none upon his family, none upon the Levite and the stranger, the fatherless and the widow, but all in the great barn. Thirdly, It was folly for him to let his mind rise with his condition; when his ground brought forth more plentifully than usual, then to talk of bigger barns, as if the next year must needs be as fruitful as this, and much more abundant, whereas the barn might be as much too big the next year as it was too little this. Years of famine commonly follow years of plenty, as they did in Egypt; and therefore it were better to stack some of his corn for this once. Fourthly, It was folly for him to think to ease his care by building new barns, for the building of them would but increase his care; those know this who know any thing of the spirit of building. The way that God prescribes for the cure of inordinate care is certainly successful, but the way of the world does but increase it. Besides, when he had done this, there were other cares that would still attend him; the greater the barns, still the greater the cares, Eccl. 5:10. Fifthly, It was folly for him to contrive and resolve all this absolutely and without reserve. This I will do: I will pull down my barns and will build greater, yea, that I will; without so much as that necessary proviso, If the Lord will, I shall live, Jas. 4:13-15. Peremptory projects are foolish projects; for our times are in God’s hand, and not in our own, and we do not so much as know what shall be on the morrow.
[3.] What his pleasing hopes and expectations were, when he should have made good these projects. “Then I will say to my soul, upon the credit of this security, whether God say it or no, Soul, mark what I say, thou hast much goods laid up for many years in these barns; now take thine ease, enjoy thyself, eat, drink, and be merry,” Luke 12:19. Here also appears his folly, as much in the enjoyment of his wealth as in the pursuit of it. First, It was folly for him to put off his comfort in his abundance till he had compassed his projects concerning it. When he has built bigger barns, and filled them (which will be a work of time), then he will take his ease; and might he not as well have done that now? Grotius here quotes the story of Pyrrhus, who was projecting to make himself master of Sicily, Africa, and other places, in the prosecution of his victories. Well, says his friend Cyneas, and what must we do then? Postea vivemus, says he, Then we will live; At hoc jam licet, says Cyneas, We may live now if we please. Secondly, It was folly for him to be confident that his goods were laid up for many years, as if his bigger barns would be safer than those he had; whereas in an hour’s time they might be burnt to the ground and all that was laid up in them, perhaps by lightning, against which there is no defence. A few years may make a great change; moth and rust may corrupt, or thieves break through and steal. Thirdly, It was folly for him to count upon certain ease, when he had laid up abundance of the wealth of this world, whereas there are many things that may make people uneasy in the midst of their greatest abundance. One dead fly may spoil a whole pot of precious ointment; and one thorn a whole bed of down. Pain and sickness of body, disagreeableness of relations, and especially a guilty conscience, may rob a man of his ease, who has ever so much of the wealth of this world. Fourthly, It was folly for him to think of making no other use of his plenty than to eat and drink, and to be merry; to indulge the flesh, and gratify the sensual appetite, without any thought of doing good to others, and being put thereby into a better capacity of serving God and his generation: as if we lived to eat, and did not eat to live, and the happiness of man consisted in nothing else but in having all the gratifications of sense wound up to the height of pleasurableness. Fifthly, It was the greatest folly of all to say all this to his soul. if he had said, Body, take thine ease, for thou hast goods laid up for many years, there had been sense in it; but the soul, considered as an immortal spirit, separable from the body, was no way interested in a barn full of corn or a bag full of gold. If he had had the soul of a swine, he might have blessed it with the satisfaction of eating and drinking; but what is this to the soul of a man, that has exigencies and desires which these things will be no ways suited to? It is the great absurdity which the children of this world are guilty of that they portion their souls in the wealth of the world and the pleasures of sense.
(3.) Here is God’s sentence upon all this; and we are sure that his judgment is according to truth. He said to himself, said to his soul, Take thine ease. If God had said so too, the man had been happy, as his Spirit witnesses with the spirit of believers to make them easy. But God said quite otherwise; and by his judgment of us we must stand or fall, not by ours of ourselves, 1 Cor. 4:3, 4. His neighbours blessed him (Ps. 10:3), praised him as doing well for himself (Ps. 49:18); but God said he did ill for himself: Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee, Luke 12:20. God said to him, that is, decreed this concerning him, and let him know it, either by his conscience or by some awakening providence, or rather by both together. This was said when he was in the fulness of his sufficiency (Job 20:22), when his eyes were held waking upon his bed with his cares and contrivances about enlarging his barns, not by adding a bay or two more of building to them, which might serve to answer the end, but by pulling them down and building greater, which was requisite to please his fancy. When he was forecasting this, and had brought it to an issue, and then lulled himself asleep again with a pleasing dream of many years’ enjoyment of his present improvements, then God said this to him. Thus Belshazzar was struck with terror by the hand-writing on the wall, in the midst of his jollity. Now observe what God said,
[1.] The character he gave him: Thou fool, thou Nabal, alluding to the story of Nabal, that fool (Nabal is his name, and folly is with him) whose heart was struck dead as a stone while he was regaling himself in the abundance of his provision for his sheep-shearers. Note, Carnal worldlings are fools, and the day is coming when God will call them by their own name, Thou fool, and they will call themselves so.
[2.] The sentence he passed upon him, a sentence of death: This night thy soul shall be required of thee; they shall require thy soul (so the words are), and then whose shall those things be which thou hast provided? He thought he had goods that should be his for many years, but he must part from them this night; he thought he should enjoy them himself, but he must leave them to he knows not who. Note, The death of carnal worldlings is miserable in itself and terrible to them.
First, It is a force, an arrest; it is the requiring of the soul, that soul that thou art making such a fool of; what hast thou to do with a soul, who canst use it no better? Thy soul shall be required; this intimates that he is loth to part with it. A good man, who has taken his heart off from this world, cheerfully resigns his soul at death, and gives it up; but a worldly man has it torn from him with violence; it is a terror to him to think of leaving this world. They shall require thy soul. God shall require it; he shall require an account of it. “Man, woman, what hast thou done with thy soul. Give an account of that stewardship.” They shall; that is, evil angels as the messengers of God’s justice. As good angels receive gracious souls to carry them to their joy, so evil angels receive wicked souls to carry them to the place of torment; they shall require it as a guilty soul to be punished. The devil requires thy soul as his own, for it did, in effect, give itself to him.
Secondly, It is a surprize, an unexpected force. It is in the night, and terrors in the night are most terrible. The time of death is day-time to a good man; it is his morning. But it is night to a worldling, a dark night; he lies down in sorrow. It is this night, this present night, without delay; there is no giving bail, or begging a day. This pleasant night, when thou art promising thyself many years to come, now thou must die, and go to judgment. Thou art entertaining thyself with the fancy of many a merry day, and merry night, and merry feast; but, in the midst of all, here is an end of all, Isa. 21:4.
Thirdly, It is the leaving of all those things behind which they have provided, which they have laboured for, and prepared for hereafter, with abundance of toil and care. All that which they have placed their happiness in, and built their hope upon, and raised their expectations from, they must leave behind. Their pomp shall not descend after them (Ps. 49:17), but they shall go as naked out of the world as they came into it, and they shall have no benefit at all by what they have hoarded up either in death, in judgment, or in their everlasting state.
Fourthly, It is leaving them to they know not who: “Then whose shall those things be? Not thine to be sure, and thou knowest not what they will prove for whom thou didst design them, thy children and relations, whether they will be wise or fools (Eccl. 2:18, 19), whether such as will bless thy memory or curse it, be a credit to thy family or a blemish, do good or hurt with what thou leavest them, keep it or spend it; nay, thou knowest not but those for whom thou dost design it may be prevented from the enjoyment of it, and it may be turned to somebody else thou little thinkest of; nay, though thou knowest to whom thou leavest it, thou knowest not to whom they will leave it, or into whose hand it will come at last.” If many a man could have foreseen to whom his house would have come after his death, he would rather have burned it than beautified it.
Fifthly, It is a demonstration of his folly. Carnal worldlings are fools while they live: this their way is their folly (Ps. 49:13); but their folly is made most evident when they die: at his end he shall be a fool (Jer. 17:11); for then it will appear that he took pains to lay up treasure in a world he was hastening from, but took no care to lay it up in the world he was hastening to.
Lastly, Here is the application of this parable (Luke 12:21): So is he, such a fool, a fool in God’s judgment, a fool upon record, that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God. This is the way and this is the end of such a man. Observe here.
1. The description of a worldly man: He lays up treasure for himself, for the body, for the world, for himself in opposition to God, for that self that is to be denied. (1.) It is his error that he counts his flesh himself, as if the body were the man. If self be rightly stated and understood, it is only the true Christian that lays up treasure for himself, and is wise for himself, Prov. 9:12. (2.) It is his error that he makes it his business to lay up for the flesh, which he calls laying up for himself. All his labour is for his mouth (Eccl. 6:7), making provision for the flesh. (3.) It is his error that he counts those things his treasure which are thus laid up for the world, and the body, and the life that now is; they are the wealth he trusts to, and spends upon, and lets out his affections toward. (4.) The greatest error of all is that he is in no care to be rich towards God, rich in the account of God, whose accounting us rich makes us so (Rev. 2:9), rich in the things of God, rich in faith (Jas. 2:5), rich in good works, in the fruits of righteousness (1 Tim. 6:18), rich in graces, and comforts, and spiritual gifts. Many who have abundance of this world are wholly destitute of that which will enrich their souls, which will make them rich towards God, rich for eternity.
2. The folly and misery of a worldly man: So is he. Our Lord Jesus Christ, who knows what the end of things will be, has here told us what his end will be. Note, It is the unspeakable folly of the most of men to mind and pursue the wealth of this world more than the wealth of the other world, that which is merely for the body and for time, more than that which is for the soul and eternity.