by Harold St John (1876-1957)
On a speaking tour of New Zealand, Harold St John, British missionary, author, Bible teacher and father of children’s author Patricia St John, gave a sermon on “breaking hedges”, based on the obscure Bible verse from Ecclesiastes 10:8 “Whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him”. Here is an abridged version of that unique, effective and poignant address:
Every farmer knows the value of hedges; they keep the sheep from straying in wilder lands and protect them from marauders. They keep the thief and the wild beast at bay. In the East they see to it that nobody removes the ancient landmark. Yet, while these hedges that surround our lives are really our biggest blessings, strange to say, we very often fret and fume behind these God-ordained walls.
I will take one or two of those fences that we are in constant danger of breaking down. The first one is that very delicate and fairy-like palisade that we call modesty, about which the apostle Paul says so much in his writings. Now, by modesty, I mean this: that instinctive, deep-seated feeling that our minds and our bodies are very sacred things that are not common land for the foot of every stranger to trample on. There are certain physical and mental reticences that our fathers used to respect very highly, and which are in constant danger of being broken down in the days in which we live, and nature tells us a great deal about that. There are flowers so sensitive that if a passing stranger allows his shadow to fall upon them, they begin to retreat and curl up their leaves. There are plants so sensitive that the touch of an insect’s wing is resented, and they begin to withdraw and pull themselves back. And it is a tremendous thing for us if we seek by the help and grace of God to keep that sense of modesty absolutely intact. It is like the down on a peach. These are days when that instinct, so deep-seated, is in constant danger of violation by the literature, by the speech, and by the common things that we see about us; and remember, there are certain sanctities which, once violated, can never be replaced, or at least are plants of very slow growth. Take for instance the very simplest things which you hear: jesting about Holy Scripture, jokes about the Bible, remarks with double meanings. Let your soul rise up in protest, wrap yourself in a mantle of disgust and refusal, for, again I say, this modesty is desired to keep the heart and affections pure. This desire is a thing that is being soiled and ruined, so that a man has lost, or a woman has lost that which is of incalculable worth in character-substance and building, when once modesty has been wiped away from the bloom of life.
Then behind modesty, there stands one of the fences which we call manners, and I make bold to say that manners are very little regarded in our day. I am not suggesting that you have bad manners in this country, but I do not think that everybody understands the value of manners. People think that they are ancient customs that are of no importance and can be flung aside – now you cannot do things that way. Take that instinct that makes a well-brought-up young man rise to his feet when a lady comes into the room, or that makes him give up his seat in a train if a lady is standing. Don’t imagine that that is a little piece of French manners imported from Europe – don’t imagine that. Our manners are the defences of our morals. Let me illustrate it.
As long as man has lived he has been in the custom of building temples – great buildings supported by stout pillars. One day, thousands of years ago, a man had built a great stout pillar. He knew in those days that the usual thing was for his neighbour to come with an axe or hammer and break down his pillar, so one day, it struck him to do a singular thing. At the top or his pillar, he carved some lily work – just a little piece of decoration. I dare say his wife came in and said, “What is the good of that? That does not make the pillar any stronger. Why do you carve the lily work on your pillar?” “Well, my dear, it is like this. It struck me that many a man might come in with an axe and want to use it and when he saw my pillar, he might say, ‘Here is a pillar – let’s smash it’, but when he noticed the beautiful piece of carved work he would think twice about breaking it down.”
It is one of the greater sins to smash the lily work on some stout pillar which was built at the cost of time, care and good taste, and when you violate some piece of good manners, when you brush aside as a thing of no worth some ancient custom, some standard of courtesy, some bit of lily-work carved upon the stout pillar of your life, you do a worse thing than you know; you destroy with axe and hammer, one of the vital things of life. The next thing is that the passer-by will find it easier to violate your mind – just because the carved work has been broken down. Our manners are the defences of our morals, and nowhere is that more needed today, than in relations between the sexes. In the recent past women have emerged into a freedom to which their mothers and grand-mothers were entirely strangers, and I am not saying for one moment whether that freedom be good or whether it be doubtful, but I do say that it is a fact that they stand and compete with men in many fields. The tendency of such a movement necessarily is to cheapen, in the minds of foolish and unbalanced men, the worth of women and to lower the delicacy of their feelings. So, see to it on both sides that you insist on this reticence by good manners.
We find that these hedges are often broken quickly and we never fail to find that the serpent bites; so I ask you to consider briefly with me the Scripture in Genesis 3. Here is a woman fenced around by a hedge in the garden of God, and from that her eyes are directed to a thing that is pleasing, a thing which she thinks will give her a thrill, and an experience that she has never had before – “I should like to have my eyes opened. I would like to have some thrills”. But the serpent’s voice and the vision of the tree sent that woman away from that tree and from the garden, weeping tears that were never wiped away. How many since have trodden the same path of sorrow.
Then I come to Paul in Acts Ch 28, and there I see a man standing on a beach; not in a garden of beauty, but on a cold, bleak beach. He has two hundred and seventy-five people with him and he is the man to whom they all look for leadership; so Paul goes away and gathers some firewood, and amongst the bundle in his arms there is a long, stick-like thing, which he thinks is a piece of wood. He does not know that it is an hibernating snake, torpid with the cold; but as he warms it against the flames the heat kindles the beast to life and it strikes at Paul’s wrist, and there it dangles. Paul stands there for a moment, with the serpent on his wrist, and the Barbarians with their eyes fixed upon him wonder what is going to happen to the man who has been struck by the serpent. Then, with one swift turn of his wrist, he shakes the boast into the fire. They say that this man is a murderer because he has been bitten by the serpent, that he has broken some fence. But Paul stood behind the fence by which God had hedged his life and no serpent could bite that man. The world still thinks there is something Godlike about the man who can take the beast within him and shake it into the fire instead of yielding to it. And the reason why Luke finishes his great chronicle of Church history with Paul with the serpent on his wrist is this: that that picture incorporates the whole of Paul’s teaching in the letter to the Romans. What is a man to do with the beast – that is, the serpent that is in him, that indwelling sin? Is he to take it into his breast, stroke it and warm it? No! With one quick turn of the wrist shake it into the fire, “Sin shall not have dominion over me, for I am not under the law.” I am God’s free man, and the serpent cannot bite me.
There is one Person Who never violated a hedge, that is the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is strange to say that the hedges wore around Him so closely that He could touch them almost on every side. Our Lord’s life was nothing like so free or so full, speaking after the manner of men, as yours is. He lived with four brothers and at least three sisters, and probably His widowed mother, and there for 30 years, in those narrow surroundings, He was behind the hedge of His Father’s will. When He went into the desert the tempter said to Him three times, “Break the hedge”, and each time the Lord said, “No”. He stood before Pilate and He might have broken the hedge of human authority: He might have called twelve legions of angels to help Him and have broken the hedge of human injustice – but He stood behind the hedge of His Father’s will. “He opened not his mouth when they smote Him; “being reviled, He reviled not again”, and so that perfect life, behind the hedge of the Father’s will, passed to its honourable close seated at God’s right hand. And when you are tempted at times to break those limitations, and those fences behind which God has put your life, fences that each one of us knows and is conscious of, remember that that there was One who made His hedge the strength and joy of His life: “I delight to do Thy will O God.”
Now, there are times when a man says, “I am not sure whether that thing is right. I am not sure whether it is a hedge of God.” Well, I will give you a simple rule by which to find out. Never say, ”What harm is there in it?” but “What fruit is there?” (Rom 6:21). I was crossing the Campus of one of our American Summer Bible Schools, and as I walked over I noticed a group of about fifteen young people gathered around a tree stump, arguing with great energy about some matter. One of them, a fair fluffy-haired little thing of about sixteen, caught sight of me and called me over to ponder a great problem, and she said “Now, Mr St. John, what we are talking about is this: should a young Christian dance? We would like to know what you think.” I replied, “First of all I am glad you said ‘a young Christian’, because an old Christian wouldn’t want to, his bones are too stiff, so we will keep it to the young Christian. Now you have asked me a very great question and it is much too hard for me to answer. ‘Should a young Christian dance?’ Now, if you had asked me something simple, like the meaning of Ezekiel’s wheels, or the wings of the seraphim, I could have told you at once, but a question as deep as that, I say that I cannot tell you”, and there were fifteen disappointed faces. “But I will tell you now what I can do; I can help you to answer your own question.” So getting a piece of paper, I drew a line down the middle, and in the centre I put a cross mark; so there was a blank sheet of paper with the sign of the cross in the centre, while I wrote on this side “BC” and on the other side “AD”. “Now,” I said, “On that sheet of paper everything on the left hand side will be what is suitable to the days before you knew Christ, and everything on the right hand side will be suitable to the days after you knew Christ. Very well. I shall say a few things and you will write them down, left or right.” I began throwing out words very quickly, “Country walk for exercise”, “prayer meeting,” this and that and they went down one after the other as the case may be, and about the twelfth thing I threw out “dancing”. Like a flash they wrote it down on the left side. When the question was put to them suddenly like that, they knew instinctively whether it was right or not, and they had their answer.
I make bold to say that when you come to questionable things, nearly always you can settle them by writing this text – “BC” or “AD”. Do they really suit Christ? Can He smile upon them, and can you seek His favour on them? If not, you dare not do them. Should Christians go to the theatre? Well I state, that all depends. I remember some time after I was converted having a free evening, so I went to the theatre, took my pocket full of gospel tracts and at half time began handing out those tracts. I had not been there five minutes before a big commissionaire came up and asked me to go away, but I said “I have paid my entry – why should I go away? Am I injuring anybody?” He said, “We do not like that sort of little book here.” Then the manager came up to me, so I left and began to give them out at the doorway at the end. When the people came down, why, there was a sister who was in assembly fellowship coming down the stairs of the theatre. When she saw me with my little books she flushed up crimson. I wondered why she flushed up crimson. I was in the theatre and I was perfectly happy, and I just wondered why that sister looked so embarrassed. I was there too, and I wasn’t a bit embarrassed. I pondered over it all the way home, but I won’t tell you what conclusion I came to. You can answer that for yourself.
There are certain deep and stable instincts that the Spirit of God has put into our lives as Christians, and it is well for us never to violate a God-given, God-raised fence, that is, some deep instinct that the Spirit of God has really settled; and if we are going to live clean, Christ-like lives as servants of the Saviour, we have to keep and respect those barriers that God has erected.
Our business is to walk in separation from this present world, and I am not going to give you any broad or narrow interpretation of that. You may enjoy beautiful things, and I tell you this, that the Lord Jesus Christ never took from any man or woman any single thing that was good. If you think that becoming a Christian means that you must give up good things, it is a lie. He never took a good thing from anybody. He took the corrupting things, things that lessen, things that are base and common; but He never took a thing that will honour and bless His name.
May God guard us against ever breaking hedges, lest serpents bite us.