I have always liked aphorisms – those short, pithy sayings that express a nugget of truth in a striking way. That is one of several reasons why I have been drawn to Samuel Rutherford, an eminent servant of the gospel in seventeenth-century Scotland.
His capacity for coining phrases that get under your skin and won’t leave you alone was remarkable. Many Christians will have encountered this without even knowing who Rutherford was! How?
By singing Anne Ross Cousin’s devotional hymn, ‘The sands of time are sinking’. This poem is largely made up of some of Rutherford’s choicest sayings, skilfully interwoven. Each verse ends with his phrase, ‘glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land’.
The windy side
I woke up to Rutherford while still a student. Someone gave me a copy of a Banner of Truth paperback containing selected highlights from his letters. It was just the right size to fit in my duffle-coat pocket, and I read it on bus journeys across my home town of Sunderland to see my girlfriend (now my wife of twenty-nine years).
It was on the top deck of the 104 bus that I first encountered such phrases as, ‘my Saviour, in his sufferings, took the windy side of the hill for me’. I was transported to seventeenth-century Galloway.
Out of the bus window I could see the headgear of Monkwearmouth Colliery, where the Sunderland Stadium of Light now stands. But in my mind’s eye I could see an old shepherd taking pity on the little lad beside him, deliberately standing between an exhausted boy and the keen wind blowing off the Solway Firth. From then on, a sturdy Scots Presbyterian won the heart of an English Baptist.
Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) was one of that generation of Scottish Christians known as the Covenanters. He grew up in the Borders, at Nisbet, in Roxburghshire. After a brief academic career at Edinburgh University, he spent nine years serving a rural parish, Anwoth in Kirkcudbrightshire.
His later career showed that he was a theologian of the highest calibre, yet he gladly spent himself in the service of a scattered congregation of shepherds and smallholders.
During this period he fell foul of the authorities because he had not been ordained by a bishop, and suffered a period of internal exile in Aberdeen.
For most of the 1640s and 50s, during the troubled times that fell upon England, Scotland and Ireland, he served as Professor of Divinity at St Andrews. During this period he was one of the Scottish delegates at the Westminster Assembly and also wrote the book,
Lex Rex, a classic on the principles of constitutional government.
The Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, when Charles II regained his father’s crown, meant that Rutherford was in danger — but he cheated his persecutors by dying before he could be put on trial.
Modern Christians know him best for his 365 surviving letters, some written during his exile in Aberdeen. Anyone who sets himself to read one a day can be sure of feeding his soul on a spiritual classic within a single year.
Rutherford shines through his letters as a pastor and as a Christian. An English merchant who travelled in Scotland made a point of going to hear some of the eminent preachers of the day. He noted, ‘I came to Irvine, and heard a well-favoured, proper old man (David Dickson), with a long beard, and that man showed me all my heart.
‘Then I went to St Andrews, where I heard a sweet, majestic-looking man (Robert Blair), and he showed me the majesty of God. After him, I heard a little, fair man and he showed me the loveliness of Christ’.
When I first read those words, I was tousle-headed and blonde and, being only average height, I felt I could identify with the sturdy, flaxen-haired borderer of long ago. Like him, I wanted to show people the loveliness of Christ, and still do.
Love for Christ
That is why Rutherford’s letters will richly repay the believer who makes a determined assault on them. Amid the references to seventeenth-century Scottish church politics, you will find sayings that will inflame your love for Christ and set your pulse racing.
Asked, ‘What will Christ be like when he comes?’ the minister of Anwoth replied, ‘All lovely’. He once said of heaven, ‘If his love was not in heaven I should be unwilling to go thither’ — and in the same spirit, ‘He who sitteth on the throne is his lone self a sufficient heaven’.
When it comes to pastoral matters, Rutherford is full of biblical common sense, again frequently expressed in delightful spiritual aphorisms. Addressing those lacking assurance, he wrote, ‘Believers often seek in themselves what they should seek in Christ’. To those prone to set too much store by feelings he said, ‘Your heart is not the compass that Christ saileth by’.
He knew the meaning of suffering, having experienced several bereavements as well as persecution from the Episcopal authorities, and had words of comfort for the believer going through the mill: ‘The lintel-stone and pillars of his New Jerusalem suffer more knocks of God’s hammer and tools than the common side-wall stones’.
It is all too easy as a Christian to become over-impressed with the pleasures of this world. Rutherford challenges our earth-bound attitudes with this advice; ‘Don’t build your nest down here. The forest and every tree in it is marked for destruction’.
The duffle-coat disappeared years ago. The tousled mop of fair hair has been replaced by a grizzled fringe around a balding dome. But a wise Scots pastor — who has been in what he called ‘love’s own country’ for over three hundred years — still captivates me.
Aphorisms are memorable. Some of Rutherford’s choice phrases have stuck in my mind and nourished me in good times and bad. In an age of flimsy, lightweight Christianity, his words have much to offer us today.