The foregoing chapter began with Christ’s entering into the synagogue (Mark 4:1); this chapter begins with Christ’s teaching again by the sea side. Thus he changed his method, that if possible all might be reached and wrought upon. To gratify the nice and more genteel sort of people that had seats, chief seats, in the synagogue, and did not care for hearing a sermon any where else, he did not preach always by the sea side, but, having liberty, went often into the synagogue, and taught there; yet, to gratify the poor, the mob, that could not get room in the synagogue, he did not always preach there, but began again to teach by the sea side, where they could come within hearing. Thus are we debtors both to the wise and to the unwise, Rom. 1:14.
Here seems to be a new convenience found out, which had not been used before, though he had before preached by the sea side (Mark 2:13), and that was—his standing in a ship, while his hearers stood upon the land; and that inland sea of Tiberias having no tide, there was no ebbing and flowing of the waters to disturb them. Methinks Christ’s carrying his doctrine into a ship, and preaching it thence, was a presage of his sending the gospel to the isles of the Gentiles, and the shipping off of the kingdom of God (that rich cargo) from the Jewish nation, to be sent to a people that would bring forth more of the fruits of it. Now observe here,
I. The way of teaching that Christ used with the multitude (Mark 4:2); He taught them many things, but it was by parables or similitudes, which would tempt them to hear; for people love to be spoken to in their own language, and careless hearers will catch at a plain comparison borrowed from common things, and will retain and repeat that, when they have lost, or perhaps never took, the truth which it was designed to explain and illustrate: but unless they would take pains to search into it, it would but amuse them; seeing they would see, and not perceive (Mark 4:12); and so, while it gratified their curiosity, it was the punishment of their stupidity; they wilfully shut their eyes against the light, and therefore justly did Christ put it into the dark lantern of a parable, which had a bright side toward those who applied it to themselves, and were willing to be guided by it; but to those who were only willing for a season to play with it, it only gave a flash of light now and then, but sent them away in the dark. It is just with God to say of those that will not see, that they shall not see, and to hide from their eyes, who only look about them with a great deal of carelessness, and never look before them with any concern upon the things that belong to their peace.
II. The way of expounding that he used with his disciples; When he was alone by himself, not only the twelve, but others that were about him with the twelve, took the opportunity to ask him the meaning of the parables, Mark 4:10. They found it good to be about Christ; the nearer him the better; good to be with the twelve, to be conversant with those that are intimate with him. And he told them what a distinguishing favour it was to them, that they were made acquainted with the mystery of the kingdom of God, Mark 4:11. The secret of the Lord was with them. That instructed them, which others were only amused with, and they were made to increase in knowledge by every parable, and understood more of the way and method in which Christ designed to set up his kingdom in the world, while others were dismissed, never the wiser. Note, Those who know the mystery of the kingdom of heaven, must acknowledge that it is given to them; they receive both the light and the sight from Jesus Christ, who, after his resurrection, both opened the scriptures, and opened the understanding, Luke 24:27, 45.
In particular, we have here,
1. The parable of the sower, as we had it, Matt. 13:3 He begins (Mark 4:3), with, Hearken, and concludes (Mark 4:9) with, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. Note, The words of Christ demand attention, and those who speak from him, may command it, and should stir it up; even that which as yet we do not thoroughly understand, or not rightly, we must carefully attend to, believing it to be both intelligible and weighty, that at length we may understand it; we shall find more in Christ’s sayings than at first there seemed to be.
2. The exposition of it to the disciples. Here is a question Christ put to them before he expounded it, which we had not in Matthew (Mark 4:13); “Know ye not this parable? Know ye not the meaning of it? How then will ye know all parables?” (1.) “If ye know not this, which is so plain, how will ye understand other parables, which will be more dark and obscure? If ye are gravelled and run aground with this, which bespeaks so plainly the different success of the word preached upon those that hear it, which ye yourselves may see easily, how will ye understand the parables which hereafter will speak of the rejection of the Jews, and the calling of the Gentiles, which is a thing ye have no idea of?” Note, This should quicken us both to prayer and pains that we may get knowledge, that there are a great many things which we are concerned to know; and if we understand not the plain truths of the gospel, how shall we master those that are more difficult? Vita brevis, ars longa—Life is short, art is long. If we have run with the footmen, and they have wearied us, and run us down, then how shall we contend with horses? Jer. 12:5. (2.) “If ye know not this, which is intended for your direction in hearing the word, that ye may profit by it; how shall ye profit by what ye are further to hear? This parable is to teach you to be attentive to the word, and affected with it, that you may understand it. If ye receive not this, ye will not know how to use the key by which ye must be let into all the rest.” If we understand not the rules we are to observe in order to our profiting by the word, how shall we profit by any other rule? Observe, Before Christ expounds the parable, [1.] He shows them how sad their case was, who were not let into the meaning of the doctrine of Christ; To you it is given, but not to them. Note, It will help us to put a value upon the privileges we enjoy as disciples of Christ, to consider the deplorable state of those who want such privileges, especially that they are out of the ordinary way of conversion; lest they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them. Mark 4:12. Those only who are converted, have their sins forgiven them: and it is the misery of unconverted souls, that they lie under unpardoned guilt. [2.] He shows them what a shame it was, that they needed such particular explanations of the word they heard, and did not apprehend it at first. Those that would improve in knowledge, must be made sensible of their ignorance.
Having thus prepared them for it, he gives them the interpretation of the parable of the sower, as we had it before in Matthew. Let us only observe here,
First, That in the great field of the church, the word of God is dispensed to all promiscuously; The sower soweth the word (Mark 4:14), sows it at a venture, beside all waters, upon all sorts of ground (Isa. 32:20), not knowing where it will light, or what fruit it will bring forth. He scatters it, in order to the increase of it. Christ was awhile sowing himself, when he went about teaching and preaching; now he sends his ministers, and sows by their hand. Ministers are sowers; they have need of the skill and discretion of the husbandman (Isa. 28:24-26); they must not observe winds and clouds (Eccl. 11:4, 6), and must look up to God, who gives seed to the sower, 2 Cor. 9:10.
Secondly, That of the many that hear the word of the gospel, and read it, and are conversant with it, there are, comparatively, but few that receive it, so as to bring forth the fruits of it; here is but one in four, that comes to good. It is sad to think, how much of the precious seed of the word of God is lost, and sown in vain; but there is a day coming when lost sermons must be accounted for. Many that have heard Christ himself preach in their streets, will hereafter be bidden to depart from him; those therefore who place all their religion in hearing, as if that alone would save them, do but deceive themselves, and build their hope upon the sand, Jas. 1:22.
Thirdly, Many are much affected with the word for the present, who yet receive no abiding benefit by it. The motions of soul they have, answerable to what they hear, are but a mere flash, like the crackling of thorns under a pot. We read of hypocrites, that they delight to know God’s ways (Isa. 58:2); of Herod, that he heard John gladly (Mark 6:20); of others, that they rejoiced in his light (John 5:35); of those to whom Ezekiel was a lovely song (Ezek. 33:32); and those represented here by the stony ground, received the word with gladness, and yet came to nothing.
Fourthly, The reason why the word doth not leave commanding, abiding, impressions upon the minds of the people, is, because their hearts are not duly disposed and prepared to receive it; the fault is in themselves, not in the word; some are careless forgetful hearers, and these get no good at all by the word; it comes in at one ear, and goes out at the other; others have their convictions overpowered by their corruptions, and they lose the good impressions the word has made upon them, so that they get no abiding good by it.
Fifthly, The devil is very busy about loose, careless hearers, as the fowls of the air go about the seed that lies above ground; when the heart, like the highway, is unploughed, unhumbled, when it lies common, to be trodden on by every passenger, as theirs that are great company-keepers, then the devil is like the fowls; he comes swiftly, and carries away the word ere we are aware. When therefore these fowls come down upon the sacrifices, we should take care, as Abram did, to drive them away (Gen. 15:11); that, though we cannot keep them from hovering over our heads, we may not let them nestle in our hearts.
Sixthly, Many that are not openly scandalized, so as to throw off their profession, as they on the stony ground did, yet have the efficacy of it secretly choked and stifled, so that it comes to nothing; they continue in a barren, hypocritical profession, which brings nothing to pass, and so go down as certainly, though more plausibly, to hell.
Seventhly, Impressions that are not keep, will not be durable, but will wear off in suffering, trying times; like footsteps on the sand of the sea, which are gone the next high tide of persecution; when that iniquity doth abound, the love of many to the ways of God waxeth cold; many that keep their profession in fair days, lose it in a storm; and do as those that go to sea only for pleasure, come back again when the wind arises. It is the ruin of hypocrites, that they have no root; they do not act from a living fixed principle; they do not mind heart-work, and without that religion is nothing; for he is the Christian, that is one inwardly.
Eighthly, Many are hindered from profiting by the word of God, by their abundance of the world. Many a good lesson of humility, charity, self-denial, and heavenly-mindedness, is choked and lost by that prevailing complacency in the world, which they are apt to have, on whom it smiles. Thus many professors, that otherwise might have come to something, prove like Pharaoh’s lean kine and thin ears.
Ninthly, Those that are not encumbered with the cares of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, may yet lose the benefit of their profession by the lusts of other things; this is added here in Mark; by the desires which are about other things (so Dr. Hammond), an inordinate appetite toward those things that are pleasing to sense or to the fancy. Those that have but little of the world, may yet be ruined by an indulgence of the body.
Tenthly, Fruit is the thing that God expects and requires from those that enjoy the gospel: fruit according to the seed; a temper of mind, and a course of life, agreeable to the gospel; Christian graces daily exercised, Christian duties duly performed. This is fruit, and it will abound to our account.
Lastly, No good fruit is to be expected but from good seed. If the seed be sown on good ground, if the heart be humble, and holy, and heavenly, there will be good fruit, and it will abound sometimes even to a hundred fold, such a crop as Isaac reaped, Gen. 26:12.