Hugh Binning expounds the solemn lament of Isaiah 64:6: we “fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away”. He even draws spiritual lessons from the falling sap and dying light of autumn. What does this teach us about our own spiritual condition, the condition of those around us and that of our land as a whole?
1. Sin Brings Decay
Sins and iniquities have a great influence in the decay of nations and individuals and change in their outward condition, when it is joined with the wind of God’s displeasure. This people’s calamity is described by alluding to a tree in the fall of the leaf. We were (he says) once in our land as a green tree with leaves and fruit. Our Church and state were once in a flourishing condition, at least nothing was lacking to make outward splendour and glory. We were immovable in our own land, as David said in his prosperity, “I shall never be moved,” so we dreamt of eternity in earthly Canaan.
But now we are like a tree when the leaf falls. Sin has obstructed the influence of heaven and drawn away the sap of God’s presence from among us so that we fade as a leaf before its fall. Our sins prepared us for judgment. Our iniquities raised the storm of indignation that, like a whirlwind, has blown the withering leaves off the tree, driven us out of our own land and scattered us among strangers. Sin and uncleanness and the filthiness of our righteousness prepared us for the storm. It made us light so that we could resist no judgment. It made us combustible. Iniquities and sin rising up to iniquities (coming to such a degree) have accomplished the judgment and put fire among us.
2. Do Not Trust in Prosperity
It is familiar in the Scripture that people in a prosperous condition are compared to a green tree flourishing. The wicked’s prospering is like a green bay tree spreading himself in power, spreading out his arms, as it were, over more lands to conquer them, over more people, to subject them (Psalm 37:35). This is a trial to the godly. The Lord Himself bore witness of His people that they were “a green olive tree, fair and of goodly fruit” (Jeremiah 11:16). This was once their name, though it is now changed.
Now they are called a fading, withering tree without leaves or fruit. Now their place does not know them, they are removed as in a moment (Psalm 37:36). He uses this comparison in order to bring us to understand something of the nature of human glory and pomp. The fairest and most beautiful excellence in the world, the prosperity of nations and people, is only like the glory of a tree in the spring or summer.
Do not build your nest in your outward prosperity; these leaves of prosperity will not cover you always, there is a time when they will fall. Nations have their winter and their summer, individuals have them likewise. Just as these must change in nature, so they must in the lot of men. Only heaven only is continual spring, perpetually blossoming and bringing forth fruit. The tree of life that brings forth fruit every month, that has both spring and harvest all year round is there. Christians, do not sit down under the green tree of worldly prosperity, if you do, the leaves will come down about you. The gourd you trust in may be eaten up in a night, your winter will come on so that you will forget the former days as if they had never been.
Be prepared for changes. All things are subject to revolution and change. Every year has its own summer and winter. Thus the Lord has set the one over against the other, that man might find nothing after him (Ecclesiastes 7:14).
3. What Causes Decay?
What is the moth that eats up the glory and goodliness of created enjoyments? It is sin and iniquities. Sin raises the storm of the Lord’s wrath and blows away the withered leaves of men’s enjoyments. Sin dries up all the sap and sweetness of the creature comforts. It makes the leaves of the tree wither and drives the sap away to the root. It hinders the influence of God’s blessing from coming through the veins of outward prosperity. What is the virtue and sap of created things? It is God’s blessing, and therefore bread does not nourish without God’s word and command (Matthew 4:4).
We have a right through Christ to enjoy created things when we receive them by prayer and thanksgiving. This is what sanctifies our right to anything. But the iniquities of men separate between God and them (Isaiah 59:2). When God is separated and divided from things enjoyed, they are empty shells and husks with no kernel in them. This is because God fills all in all, He is all in all. Remove Him and you have nothing—your food and drink is no blessing, your table is a snare, your pleasures and laughter have sadness in them. They are at best like the vanishing blaze of thorns under a pot.
When God is angry due to sin, man’s beauty is consumed as before the moth (Psalm 39:11). David was conscious of this and could speak from much experience (Psalm 32:3-4). The anger of the Lord ate him up and dried his moisture. It might be read in his face – all the world could not content him, all the showers of creatures’ dropping fatness could not keep sap in him. God’s displeasure scorches him so greatly that no hiding-place can be found in the world, no shadow of a rock among all the creatures in such a weary land.
4. Blown Away with the Wind of Judgment
When sin has prepared a man for judgment, if iniquity is then added to sin it raises up the storm and kindles the fire to consume the combustible matter. Sin gives many blows at the root of things in which we find pleasure and value. It will ultimately bring the fatal stroke that will drive the tree to the ground. There are some preparatory judgments and some final, some wither the leaf and some blow it off completely.
Some judgments make men like the harvest, ripe for the sickle of judgment. The widespread corruption of a land and mere formality in worshipping God, ripens a land for the harvest of judgment. It exposes it to any storm and leaves it open to the Lord’s wrath. There is then nothing to hold His hand and keep back the stroke but when the wind arises and iniquities have made it tempestuous, who may stand? It will sweep away nations and people as a flood, and make their place not to know them, so that there will be neither leaf nor branch left.
There is often a great calm with great provocation. Iniquities cry, “Peace, peace!” But when its cry has gone up to heaven and has engaged God’s anger against a people or an individual, then it raises a whirlwind that takes everything away.
We ought to acknowledge sin and it is a wonder that our nation is not punished in this way. Sins and iniquities bring judgment in their train. Now you sit at peace, everyone in his own dwelling and spread forth your branches. Yet your carnal peace, security and ease need to be disturbed with these thoughts. If there was nothing more against us except the iniquity of our holy things (the casual, formality of our way of serving and worshipping God) this might be enough to raise the storm.
You do not know the reasons that ought to make you afraid of judgment. Consider original sin and how your religious actions are defiled and you will find sufficient evidence of fading away. You sit still now and seem to be so settled as though you will never be moved, you dream of an eternity here. Your hearts cleave to your houses and lands, you stick as closely to the world and will not part with it, as a leaf to a tree. Yet behold the wind of the Lord may arise that will drive you away. If your soul is removed from these things then whose will they be? If you will not fear temporal judgments, fear eternal judgment—fear hell. May the Lord not shake you off this tree of time and take you out of the land of the living, to receive your portion?
There is not only a universal deadness of spirit in the land but a profane spirit — iniquities, abominable sins, abound. Every congregation is overgrown with open disobedience. We are all unclean, sin is not hidden in corners but men declare their sin as Sodom, sin is come to maturity. Defection and apostasy is the temper of all spirits. Above all, the iniquity of Scotland is the general contempt and slighting of the glorious gospel. We wonder that the withered leaves still stick to the tree, that the storm is not yet raised so that we are blown away. Now, you are like stones – your hearts are as adamants and cannot be moved with God’s threatening. The voice of the Lord’s Word will not move you. You sin and are not afraid but when the voice of God’s rod and displeasure will roar it will make the mountains tremble, the rocks move. How much more will it drive away a leaf? You seem to be like mountains now but when God will enter into judgment you will be like the chaff driven to and fro.
5. The Remedy
If you would prevent this, engage in serious acknowledgment of your sins. “Search your ways, and turn again to the Lord.” Do not merely confess sin in general, but uncover it till you see uncleanness. Go to the source original sin then go to all the streams, even the iniquity of holy things. Let everyone be specific in searching out their own personal provocations personal. Let everyone confess the general sins of the land, that you may confess out of knowledge and a felt sense “We are all as an unclean thing…”.
Fallen leaves present an often beautiful picture. Yet in the light of Scripture they have a solemn message for our land and for ourselves, especially if we have a spirit of carelessness. Such lessons drawn from nature should be part of the lovingkindness of God that leads us to repentance and prayer. We ought also to have the hope of a spiritual springtime when the spiritual life and sap of God’s blessing rises again. Even when the leaves have been shed the life remains in the tree. Like “an oak, whose substance is in them, when they cast their leaves” (Isaiah 6:13). In the same way, the Lord is able to revive us spiritually.