The Parable Of The Sower
Adapted From A Sermon By
“Hear then the parable of the sower.” Matt 13:18 ESV
The preaching of the Gospel is an ordinance of God; it is a sacred appointment of heaven, for the most important purposes; it is by this means that people are generally saved: for “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” (1 Corinthians 1:21)
But all are not saved who hear the Gospel; it has very different effects on different persons: and it is the purpose of the parable of the Sower, which we have read in Matthew Chapter 13, to point out those different effects. Our Lord here compares the minister of the Gospel to a farmer, the world to a field, and the word of God to seed.
He supposes some of the seed to fall upon a hard-beaten path; some of it into a shallow soil with a rocky bottom; some of it near the hedge among weeds; and a part of it into good ground, where it remains, springs up, and comes to maturity. By these different circumstances, he describes, with wonderful beauty and fitness the various hearers of the Gospel. Some of them are careless and inattentive; others make a showy but short profession; others lose all the benefit of the word by their worldly-mindedness; but others, by the special grace of God, receive and retain his truth, and produce an abundance of fruit to his glory, and their own salvation.
Let us then apply ourselves to the serious consideration of this excellent parable, which we may do with all the more pleasure, as we are sure not to mistake its meaning; for our Lord was pleased to give an interpretation of it to his disciples; and this will be our guide.
1. Let us first consider the careless hearer.
In a field, especially in a common field, it often happens that there is a road or foot-path lying across it; and in scattering the seed, it is likely that some of it may fall on this path, which, being hard and beaten, is not fit for the reception of the seed; it lies uncovered, and is soon trodden down by the foot of the passer by, or picked up by the many birds which generally hover about a field when it is sown.
This is a natural and perfect picture of a very large class, probably of the greater part of hearers. Their hearts are totally unprepared for the word; not at all plowed up by godly sorrow for sin; but hard and impenitent, so that the Gospel makes no impression upon them. They come to the house of God without having prayed at home for his blessing; without any spiritual desire to be profited; without an humble, teachable disposition; without a wish to know and to do the will of God.
Such persons are usually inattentive, they sit like others who diligently listen to the word; but they do not listen; their thoughts are somewhere else. Their eyes are surveying the congregation; observing who they are, and how they are dressed; for many go to church either to see or be seen; and take so much notice of what their neighbors are wearing, especially if it is something new or special, that it becones a fruitful topic of discussion at home or in company.
The preacher is sometimes the object of attention, but not his message. They notice his person, his voice, his attitude; and perhaps make some critical remarks on his sermon; or notice a sentence or two which happened to catch their attention among the train of vain thoughts which occupied their minds.
It is astonishing to think how commonly the imagination is allowed to carry away the hearer from his proper business. Instead of a serious regard to the divine and interesting truths which the minister delivers, the careless hearer indulges his mind in the contemplation of schemes of worldly business; or he is pursuing some plan of future pleasure and amusements; or, what is still worse, allowing some sinful thought to defile his heart, even in the presence of God.
On these accounts it may be feared that, in the piercing view of the omniscient Searcher of hearts, a place of worship is sometimes a scene of greater wickedness than any other upon earth, and more provoking to his pure and holy eyes; for he is not deceived, and will not be mocked. (Galations 6:7) Sadly how many may effectively adopt the confession of the abandoned person in the Proverbs (v. 12.) “How I hated discipline, and my heart despised reproof! I did not listen to the voice of my teachers or incline my ear to my instructors. I am at the brink of utter ruin in the assembled congregation!” (Proverbs 5:12)
On these accounts it is that many persons present at a sermon can hardly be said to hear. What our Lord says of the Jews (ver. 15.) is awfully true of too many, “this people's heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them” Some are willingly and wilfully ignorant; they shut their ears against the call of God; and though they are present at sermons, yet never hear them.
A person who attended preaching all her life, confessed to her minister on her dying bed, “that she never heard but one sermon,” and that was the last before her illness; it was charitably hoped that she had heard it to good effect, and died in the faith and hope of the Gospel. But throughout all her former days, such was the vanity of her mind, that though she was present under many hundred sermons, she never so attended as properly to hear one of them; and doubtless this is exactly the case with a great number in our day.
It is said of this sort of people (ver. 19.) that they do not understand the word, and that this is one cause of its unfruitfulness. It cannot be expected that persons who are so inattentive should understand it. The truths of the Gospel, though sufficiently plain and easy to the serious Christian, yet demand the exercise of our rational powers; and if people cannot bring themselves to do this, they must remain in darkness and the shadow of death.
Another cause assigned by our Lord for the failure of the seed in the way-side hearer is, that Satan comes and takes away the word from their hearts; just as the birds pick up the grains of corn which lie uncovered on the beaten path; and this he does, so that they may not believe and be saved. (Luke 8, 12)
Satan, who is justly called “the wicked one,” as being himself wicked, and the promoter of wickedness in others, is well aware of the great importance of hearing the word aright: he knows, that if it is seriously considered, understood, remembered, and mixed with faith, it becomes “the power of God for salvation:” it is therefore a great goal with him to prevent its effectiveness; and the surest way of doing this is to divert the mind from it immediately.
This great enemy of our souls has certainly access to our minds; and though he cannot force us to sin, he can present temptations to it. We are so ignorant of the nature and operation of the spiritual world, that we cannot say in what way he does this; but we are sure, from the word of Christ himself, that so it is. He certainly exerts his powers to keep people from hearing it; or, to excite their prejudices against it; or, to prevent a due recollection of it afterwards: and in either of these ways he succeeds.
It is truly heart breaking to think how entirely the most precious truths of God are lost upon many people; there is not a single trace of them left on their memory: they make no effort to remember what they have heard; or if the text, for form sake, is remembered, this is all; a story or a tale, however trivial, is not so soon forgotten; but that word, “which is able to save our souls,” (James 1:21) is lost in total oblivion.
One cause of this is, that such hearers are strangers to quiet contemplation on the Lord’s day; instead of entering into their rooms and praying for a blessing on the sermon, they take time for some amusement, where every new object diverts the mind from what they have heard. Visiting friends and family on Sundays has the same harmful tendency, for the conversation is generally on trivial and insignificant subjects; and if it is merely compliment or ctritisism of the preacher, it answers no good purpose. It is in this way that Satan steals the word from our hearts; it is in this way that thousands of good sermons are lost; Yet more sad, it is in this way that thousands of immortal souls are lost—for ever lost.
2. But we must go on in the second place to consider the character of the temporary hearer; or, as some have termed it, the enthusiastic hearer; that is, the person who hears the good news of pardon, life, and glory with great joy; feels his natural passions elevated; but, having no root of humble conviction and genuine love for holiness, endures only for a time; “when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.” (Mark 4:17) This sort of hearer is figuratively described by that portion of the seed which fell on rocky soil, or on a rock covered with a very shallow bed of earth; here, though it might spring up, and quickly too, yet, having little or no root, and no depth of soil to supply it with sufficient moisture, it was scorched by the burning sun, and withered away entirely.
This sort of hearer is very different from the first. He is not inattentive; he is not indifferent; he hears what is said, and hears it with pleasure; he is eager to hear; he has warm and lively feelings, which are suddenly stirred by the novelty and grandeur of Gospel truths, especially if delivered with zeal and passion; he is mightily struck and charmed with his new religion, and becomes an emotional, perhaps violent advocate for it.
The facts and truths reported by the Gospel are indeed great and glorious beyond expression. The divine perfections —the immortality of the soul—the miserable condition of a sinner—the love of God—the sufferings of Christ—the pardon of iniquity—the joy of the heavenly world, are all very striking and moving subjects. If these are preached in a passionate and powerful way, and perhaps in the midst of attentive thousands, the unprejudiced hearer, and whose imagination is stired, is immediately struck and moved; the preacher is to him “as a very lovely song of one who has a pleasant voice and can play well on an instrument:” (Ezekiel 33:32 NKJV) he is charmed and delighted, just in the same way as he would be at a well-performed play, and with just as much religion. His conscience agrees with the great truths he hears; and, prompted by self-love, he flatters himself that he has become, all at once, a very good Christian, and has an interest in all the blessings which he hears described.
But this shallow professor has no root; in other words, he has no true understanding of the doctrines of the Gospel, especially as they relate to his fallen condition as a sinner: he has no humbling views of himself, as a guilty, helpless creature, exposed to divine wrath, and utterly unable to help himself. He receives some crude notions of the Gospel hastily, and without examination, taking all he hears for granted; but his judgment is not informed; his conscience not convinced; his heart not humbled: his will is not subdued; his affections are not sanctified. He has no genuine faith; his new opinions of religion are not derived from the testimony of God, but from that of man. He has a great esteem for this or that favorite preacher, while, probably, he despises all others; and the whole of his religion is usually public, consisting mainly in hearing many sermons; while he is a stranger to meditation, self-examination, and private prayer; neglects family religion, and appears to be under no influence of godliness in his life and conversation.
Is it any wonder that such a profession is short-lived? If this is all his religion, it cannot last long, There is “no depth of earth;” and as a feeble plant with a long stalk, and little root, in a shallow bed of moss, must soon wither, if exposed to a hot sun; so a profession of this kind, if assaulted by persecution, will quickly come to nothing: like Jonah’s shade plant, which sprung up in a night, and perished as hastily beneath a scorching sun.
In the early days of Christianity, the disciple of Christ was almost sure to meet with violent opposition; both Jews and Gentiles exerted all their powers to suppress the religion of Jesus. In this way the profession of his disciples was soon brought to a sharp testing; and where there was no root, no principle of grace, apostasy would quickly arise.
The same trial of faith has been the lot of many Christians in different ages of the world; nor are we to expect a total freedom from it now. “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus,” must have a portion of “persecution.” (2 Tim 3:12) If we are serious, sincere, and consistent in our attachments to the truths, ordinances, and people of God; if we are determined not to comply with the fashions and vanities of the world, we will meet with opposers; and if these should arise among our near relations, and influential people, on whom we depend, our profession will be properly tried: if there is no depth of earth, no root, this hot sun will wither our sapless stalk, and we will become barren and unfruitful.
And where no such heavy trial as this befalls us, the most trivial circumstances may be sufficient. An offence taken with the minister for his supposed personality in preaching, or at his lack of sufficient respect and attention to his hearer; a wholesome reproof given in public or private; the exercise of godly discipline in a Christian society; or even a dispute with a fellow-member, or something else more trivial, will prove a cause of offence, and the temporary professor will lay aside all his religion.
3. There is a third sort of unprofitable hearers next to be considered; this is the worldly-minded.
Our Lord compares these to the seed which fell among thorns; these thorns sprang up with it, and choked it, so that it yielded no fruit; that is, this sort of hearer so far embrace the word as to make a promising profession of the Gospel, and demonstrate some good appearance of reformation by it; but, “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” (Mark 4:19)
As the second sort of hearer went further than the first, so the third sort goes further than the second, and yet not far enough to be profitable hearers, or real Christians. In the first case, negligence was the downfall; in the second, lack of principle; in this, the love of the world. Carelessness ruins many; persecution overcomes others; prosperity destroys the rest.
Anxious cares are here compared to thorns, and very justly so, for both are the fruits of sin; the pricking thorns in the hedge are fit emblems of corroding cares in the heart, and nothing more effectually hinders the success of the word. Some degree of care is necessary for the proper management of our lawful affairs; and as Paul writes to Timothy: “anyone does not provide for his relatives... has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8) but the cares of this life are apt to become excessive and hurtful: they wholly engross the time, even that part of it which should be devoted to the more important concerns of eternity; they occupy the thoughts, which should be directed towards spiritual objects; they unfit the mind for religious duties, distract the heart in them, and prevent suitable reflections after them; they quench useful impressions when actually made, and glue the affections to the base things of this world.
“Deceitful riches” also choke the growing word, and hinder its fruits. Riches are called deceitful, because they delude the possessor, as well as the spectator, with a false appearance of happiness; for the real happiness of a man’s life consists not in the abundance of his possessions: but they deceive in a worse sense, they lead the possessor, or the pursuer of riches to put off from day to day the vast concerns of his soul, under the pretence of some pressing affairs of this world, and so cheat him out of his salvation. Sadly how many such people “fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction!” (1 Timothy 6:9)
“The pleasures of life” ruin many other professors. Some pleasures are lawful, others unlawful; but even lawful pleasures, immoderately pursued, are destructive to the soul: and those who are not distracted by cares, nor deceived by riches, may be seduced by pleasure. When it becomes the main business of life to gratify the senses, to indulge the eye with every curiosity, the ear with the most enchanting sounds, the taste with the choicest delicacies,—then men become “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” (2 Timothy 3:4) A life of sensuality and endulgence is inconsistent with the life of faith, which requires humility, self-denial, and mortification. It steals away the heart from God, deprives men of all vigor and zeal in religion, and utterly prevents their producing mature fruit.
And so we have taken a view of three sorts of persons, in each of which the proper effect of the good word of God is hindered—the careless—the temporary and the worldly hearer. These, sadly! are too common; and where is the congregation in which all these kinds of hearers may not be found?
4. Yet, let us be thankful, it is not so with all who hear the Gospel. There is one more description of persons, who may be called sincere hearers; who happily escape the preceding evils, and who produce the good fruit of substantial holiness in various degrees. These are described in the parable by the seed which “fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold;” (Mark 4:8) and these, as our Lord explains it, are they who hear the word, and understand, and receive it, and keep it in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.
The good ground represents “good and honest hearts;” that is, hearts renewed by the Spirit of God, and which receive the doctrine of the Gospel with a sincere faith, and an upright desire of following it to all the practical purposes for which it is designed.
These persons are said to understand it; to accept or receive it; and to keep it; all these are necessary to fruitfulness.
1) They understand it; none of the rest are said to do so; and indeed none can, until the Holy Spirit opens their hearts to understand the Scriptures. God has promised that all his children will be taught of him; and that they will know the truth, and the truth will make them free.
2) They are said to accept or receive it; they see the beauty, fitness, and divine excellency of Gospel truth, and embrace it with the most hearfelt approval: they “receive it, not as the word of man, but as the word of God.”
3) They retain it; it is not stolen by the birds of the air, but lodged in the memory, and kept in the affections, as a sacred deposit. As David says,—“I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you;” and in another place he says, “I will never forget you precepts.” (Psalm 119:11, 93)
4) They practise it, for they produce fruit, that is, the grain arrives at a state of maturity, which it did not in either of the former cases. The first hearer produced not a single blade; the stony-ground only a stalk, which was soon burnt up; and the thornyground only a lean withered ear, empty of grain; but here, the full intent of the farmer is answered; and the single grain sown in the earth, produces a number of grains of the same nature with the seed, and so crowns all his labors and his hopes.
The proper fruits of the word as sown in the heart, are, piety toward God, benevolence toward men, and temperance in the government of ourselves. The whole is expressed briefly by the apostle Paul, when he describes the effects of the Gospel: it teaches us “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” (2 Tim 2:12)
But it should be noticed, that this genuine fruit is not produced in every real Christian to the same degree—“some thirty, some sixty, some an hundred fold.” Some begin to serve the Lord early; and therefore, in the course of many years, have greater opportunities than those who begin late. Some possess larger mental powers; a superior position in life; greater opportunities of usefulness; a gentler or more active temperament than others; and, by the divine blessing on these and other advantages, bear a larger proportion of fruit than others. But it should be the prayer and endeavor of all to be as fruitful as possible, for “by this my Father is glorified,” said our precious Master, “that you bear much fruit.” (John 15:8)
And now what shall we learn from this excellent parable? Take the sum of its instruction in a single sentence—a sentence pronounced by our Lord himself immediately after it.
“Take care then how you hear” (Luke 8:18)
It is truly not a light matter. We may forget sermons, but God will not. If he will call us to account for idle words spoken by ourselves, can we suppose he will require no account of his own holy word spoken to us? It is a dangerous thing to play with the Gospel! It will be found at last—“a fragrance from death to death, or a fragrance from life to life.”
Beware then of resembling the first hearer. Do not go to the house of God in a light, inconsiderate spirit; nor behave there with irreverence and inattention; it is an insult to heaven, and an injury to your own soul. Beware also of the birds of the air when the meeting ends. Disappoint the watchful enemy of souls who waits for your destruction; retire; recollect, and pray over the sermon,
Dread the thought of being a temporary hearer. Be not satisfied with the emotion of your passions under the word. Be concerned to have “the root of the matter” within you; so that, in the hour of temptation, you may be able to stand your ground, and not be “of those who shrink back and are destroyed.” (Hebrews 10:39)
Beware of a worldly mind. Anxious cares, deceitful riches, and carnal pleasures, choke the word, and make it fruitless. But will you place these in the balance with the glory of God and your eternal welfare? Do be wiser, and remember that weighty saying, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)
Finally, let it be your constant study and prayer to be sincere and fruitful hearers. Endeavor, by a serious, diligent attention, to understand the word; by the exercise of precious faith to warmly receive it; by private meditation and prayer to retain it; and by daily observation to bring it into practice.
Let us close with the words with which our Lord himself closed the parable—“As he said these things, he called out,” and this probably with a louder voice than before: and O that these words may reach our inmost souls!—“He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Luke 8:8)