by Mark Minnick
This article first appeared in FrontLine Mar/Apr 1997. Click the link for subscription information.
You have heard of the patience of Job (James 5:11). But have you heard of the patience of Joseph Caryl? With the exception of the Book of Job’s anonymous author, Caryl may have been its foremost authority ever. He ought to have been. His series on the book, ending in 1666, spanned a stretch of more than 24 years!
Whether Caryl or his listeners exercised the most patience is debatable. The 424 messages evidently drew hearers, however, for in the final years of the series his “church so much increased, that at his death he left 136 communicants” (a large attendance in days of persecution). Surprisingly, even reading the sermons has not proven necessarily exhausting. Under his signature, C. H. Spurgeon wrote on the flyleaf of the third volume from his own set, “Caryl is not a line too long for me,” and in Commenting and Commentariestestified, “He gives us much, but none too much.”
Unfortunately, Joseph Caryl’s series is seldom sampled today due to its size and exceeding rarity. I heard once of a 12-volume set available from a London bookseller for right around $3,000, but being at that time remarkably short of $3,000, I regretfully left the good man with both his books and his price.
Were I a wealthy man, however, I might underwrite some publisher’s putting Caryl back in print. Few could read it all, of course, but many earnest men might profitably consult its unique help on almost any conceivable Biblical theme for, as Spurgeon noted, “in the course of his expounding he has illustrated a very large portion of the whole Bible with great clearness and power.” The 12 volumes could be comfortably reset (not abridged, please!) into five or six, and provided that the topical indexes with which Caryl concluded each volume were carefully collated, his rich remarks on any subject would be affordably and handily accessible.
But one of my chief interests (were I a wealthy and publishing man) would be in providing the people of God with what Spurgeon again called a “deeply devotional and spiritual” interpretation of both their personal and national trials from one who spoke about such things out of profound experience for more than 20 years. Consider that during that time, Joseph Caryl was eyewitness to a civil war sparked by the arrogance of a tyrannical king. He was also one of the distinguished divines chosen for the Westminster Assembly that produced the Westminster Catechisms. Then, following Charles I’s execution for high treason, Caryl played an influential part in Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth (he and John Owen were Oliver Cromwell’s personal choices for chaplains to accompany him during his campaign to subdue the Scots). Finally, following Cromwell’s death and the nation’s vehement reaction against the Commonwealth’s righteous policies, Caryl, like 2,000 other English pastors, was ejected from his ministry for refusing to sign the Act of Uniformity.
The background then, to Joseph Caryl’s 24 years in Job, is not the imbalance of a man obsessed with a quirk. It is the tumultuous life of a shepherd of souls who felt deeply his responsibility to lead his people through troubled times. Job was the truly fitting guide, not for a day, nor for a single trial, but for a lifetime of such troubles. Through the kind courtesy of William Jewell College it was my privilege recently to spend several days in the Spurgeon Collection housed there in the Charles F. Curry Library. Among the over 6,000 volumes is Spurgeon’s 12-volume set of Caryl’s patient preaching through Job. Perhaps the story behind it is for such a time as this. I want to tell it, as much as possible, in Caryl’s own words.
Born into London gentility in 1602 and “reared with manners polished by good breeding,” Joseph Caryl began his ministry near Exeter at 25. Even at this early age he aligned himself with the Puritan party within the Church of England. Over a long lifetime’s ministry he attained such stature among nonconformists that in the summer after his death the church chose the famous theologian and Oxford educator, John Owen, for its next pastor.
When Caryl began his sermons on Job in 1642, the English Civil War was beginning. He was, at the time, “Preacher to the Honorable Society of Lincolnes- Inne,” and felt heavily his responsibility to encourage a people wracked daily with calamity. Meditating on the three conditions of Job — his prosperity, troubles, and restoration — Caryl saw a striking parallel to his nation’s history. “The Book of Job,” he wrote in the preface to his first volume, “bears the image of these times, and presents us with a resemblance of the past, present, and (much hoped for) future condition of this nation. … We are the greatest, and lately were the most flourishing nation of all the nations. … But we (herein unlike to Job) have ill-requited the Lord. … And God in justice, hath put a sword into the hands of unjust men, men skillful to destroy. … Yet there is hope … concerning this thing, yea I believe there is mercy in and from all these evils.”
“This Book,” he went on to point out, “was purposely written that we through patience and comfort of this Scripture might have hope.” And then in conclusion he testified, “Nor do I doubt, but that the Providence of God (without which a sparrow falls not to the ground) directed my thoughts to this Book, as (not only profitable for all times, but) specially seasonable for these times.”
The times to which Caryl was referring were remarkably like our own. The Church of England, like modern evangelicalism, was notoriously worldly. “Our provocations have been many, and our backslidings have been multiplied,” he lamented. At the same time, 17th-century Englishmen, like 20th-century Americans, writhed under unjust civil government which turned a blind eye to rulers living arrogantly above the law. Caryl interpreted this to be the Lord’s chastening: “Our sins have put a sword into the hand of God, and God in justice, hath put a sword into the hands of unjust men, men skillful to destroy.”
What’s the Point?
Although drawing this parallel between Job and England’s history, Caryl studiously avoided “spiritualizing” Job’s experiences in order to force national applications. In fact, what he desired was something far more pastoral.
Caryl’s congregation resembled conservative assemblies today in that its membership consisted largely of men and women dedicated to Scripturally purifying every aspect of English life. Such people were called Puritans. But even such circumspect people are never entirely untouched when God chastens an entire society at once. So Caryl was burdened that his suffering people not react bitterly by murmuring against or charging the Lord foolishly.
The concerned pastor chose James 5:10–11 as his series’ theme verses, “Take, my brethren, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience. Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job.” It was Caryl’s prayer that this emphasis would be “a help to our patience, in bearing these afflictions upon the land, a help to our faith in believing, and to our hope in waiting for the salvation of the Lord.” “The main and principle subject of the Book” he explained, “is contained in one verse of the 34th Psalm, ‘Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivereth him out of all.’”
To be continued…
Dr. Mark Minnick is the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, where he has served on the pastoral staff since 1980. He serves on the executive board of the FBFI.