Sound Words: The Patience of Joseph Caryl (Part 2)

by Mark Minnick

This article first appeared in FrontLine Mar/Apr 1997. Click the link for subscription information. Part 1 here.

Rightly Dividing the Word of God

Those not well-acquainted with Puritan preaching may assume that it sacrificed exegetical accuracy for the sake of practical application. This was certainly not true of Caryl’s preaching. His work is marked by a thoroughly literal, historical, grammatical exegesis of the text. For instance, though many before him interpreted Job as an extended parable, he held that the book recorded actual history because of its use of proper names for people and places. And when it came to using the Biblical languages, Caryl excelled. In fact, he actually contributed to an English-Greek Lexicon. In the Hebrew text he appears equally at home, as evidenced by his frequent, insightful explanations of its words and grammar.

This historical, grammatical exegesis restrained dogmatizing upon uncertain points. For instance, after a thorough investigation into Job’s authorship, he wrote:

It is very uncertain who was the writer of this Book … and whatsoever can be said concerning it, is grounded but upon very light conjecture. And therefore, where the Scripture is silent, it can be of no great use for us to speak, especially seeing there is so much spoken as will find us work, and be of use for us.

One wishes today’s expositors would more studiously practice such caution when they encounter matters on which Scripture is silent.

Another instructive example is his handling of the notoriously difficult question of the identity of leviathan. After over four pages of discussing learned opinions he cautiously postured himself with those who held the mysterious creature to be a whale. The example is in his rigid refusal to doubt the scientific accuracy of the account merely because he could not explain it. My heart leaps to his unshakable confidence in God’s Word. The only thing “questionable” he wrote, is “what that creature is.” But “it be an unquestionable truth,” he asserted, “and to be received, and to be as the matter of an historical faith, because God hath said it, that there is a living creature in the compass of nature, exactly answering every particular in the following description of Leviathan.”

Exemplary as his exegesis is, Caryl’s greatest pattern for preachers is in his insistence that those who handle the Word must be Spirit-instructed. An especially valuable section of some 20 pages can only be briefly encapsulated in a few statements here. He speaks of Job’s words about “an interpreter” sent from God (33:23), and solemnly issues the caution that so unfortunately seems to be learned only from bitter experience: “Natural parts and human learning, arts and languages may give us an understanding of the tenor and literal meaning of the law of God; but none of these can open our eyes to behold the wonders of the Law, much less the wonders and mysteries of the Gospel. The opening of our eyes to behold these spiritual wonders is the Lord’s work.” And then, dividing asunder the joints and marrow of Bible teachers, he thrusts to the heart of the issue: “Tis possible for one to have learning in divine things, and not to be divinely taught.”

Beyond this, Caryl’s most pressing burden was that his people not be content merely to hear his expositions. “I had rather know five words of Scripture by my own practice and experience,” he testified, “than ten thousand words of Scripture, yea than the whole Scripture, by the bare exposition of another.” “And therefore let the words of Christ by these verbal explications, dwell richly in your understandings in all wisdom,” he admonished his hearers. “Add the comment of works to this comment of words,” he exhorted them, “and an exposition by your lives to this exposition by our labours. Surely if you do not, these exercises will be costly indeed, and will come to a deep account against you before the Lord.”

The Sufferings of Saints

By Caryl’s analysis, the Book of Job consists of a dialogue between eight speakers making 32 speeches (God speaking four times, Satan twice, Job’s wife once, Job thirteen times, Eliphaz thrice, Bildad thrice, Zophar twice, and Elihu four times). They are made during three periods in Job’s life; the time of his happy condition (externally and internally), then during his calamity, and lastly, during his restitution. Most importantly, the speeches pose and debate two deeply troubling questions. The first Caryl raised in his church by asking “whether it doth consist with the Justice and goodness of God to afflict a righteous and sincere person, to strip him naked, to take away all his outward comforts … and that it should go well with those that are evil?” This issue Caryl viewed as the “one great debate, the main question throughout the Book.”

Why does God seem to ignore the cries of His suffering saints? Is this just or good? When his preaching reached Job 19:7, “Behold I cry out of wrong, but I am not heard,” Caryl offered several answers. God often waits to deliver His people, “that they may be more fit to receive deliverance. Many cry out of wrong, who are not yet fit to be righted. Deliverances may be our undoing if we are not prepared to receive deliverance.”

Sometimes “the Lord doth not deliver presently from the wrong and oppression of the wicked, because some wicked men have not yet done wrong nor oppressed enough, and are therefore suffered to do more wrong to others, that themselves may be more fit for ruin. They must fill up the measure of their sin.”

Caryl insightfully pointed out that not all graces are eternal. Some can only be exercised here, now, and in trials. These he called “suffering graces.” Among them he named “the grace of faith, of meekness, of self-denial, and of patience.” Before growing impatient, suffering saints ought also to remember and repent of “how oft He hath cried, and they have not minded Him.”

The Greatest Trial

The first ten volumes of Caryl’s sermons introduce him on their title pages as “Preacher to the Honorable Society of Lincolnes-Inne.” But volumes XI and XII refer to him simply as “Joseph Caryl, Minister of the Gospel.” And whereas previously the sermons had been sold openly “at the sign of the Guilded Horshoe in the Old Bayly,” or “by Thomas Parkhurst at his Shope at the three Crownes against the great Conduit at the lower end of Cheap-side,” or “at the Gold Lyon in Duck-lane near Smithfield,” the 11th volume seems to have been available only privately from one “M. Simmons … at her house in Aldersgate-Street.”

These changes reflect Caryl’s loss of his church in October of 1662. Two thousand English ministers, including Joseph Caryl, aged 60, refused to sign the notorious Act of Uniformity. By so doing these godly pastors lost their pulpits, their congregations, and their livelihoods. Richard Baxter, another ejected minister, recorded, “Many hundreds of them with their wives and children had neither house nor bread. Though they were as frugal as possible they could hardly live. In many cases their income scarcely provided bread and cheese.”

The ejected pastor gathered what few would risk fines or imprisonment to meet in a house church and pointed them to their solemn duty. “Let us also be sure to stick to the commandments of God,” he exhorted from Job 35:14, “for we may rest assured, God will stick to his promises. To keep commandments is our work. To keep promises is God’s work. We fail much in our work. God will not fail at all in his work: to believe this, is the highest and truest work of faith.”

It was not Caryl’s habit to rail upon his adversaries, but while expounding God’s answer to Job out of the whirlwind (38:1), he encouraged his people with the suggestion as to why the Lord chose to speak out of such a medium. “Surely,” Caryl said, it was “that Job might see that he was but as a feather, even like a rolling thing, or thistle-down, before the Whirl-wind. And questionless, all the wicked in the world, who condemn the Word of God preached by his Ministers, will be blown away by it as thistle-down or a rolling thing before the Whirl-wind of the Lord’s fierce anger and displeasure.”

Ironically (perhaps prophetically?), these words were probably written within just a year of the Great Fire of London that burnt 13,200 houses, St. Paul’s Cathedral, 87 churches, and cost an estimated 10 million British pounds at a time when the City of London’s entire annual income was barely 12,000 pounds. Caryl had once referred to Amos 3:6, “Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?”, and assured his people “Every evil or affliction or trouble is said to be the Lord’s doing, because it cannot be done without the Lord.” There is no question, then, to whom Caryl and his people attributed the devastation of the Great Fire.

But to Joseph Caryl, ejected nonconformist minister, the greatest hope was not the destruction of his enemies. It was the vindication of his preaching. The preface to volume XII is dated May 10, 1666 (just four months before the Great Fire). His thoughts dwell on the final chapter of Job, especially God’s words to Job’s antagonists, “Ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath.”

“To hear this gracious determination from the mouth of the supreme and infallible moderator of all controversies,” Caryl wrote, “was (without controversy) a thousand times more pleasing and satisfactory to Job’s spirit, not only than the double cattle, which the Lord gave him, but, than if the Lord had given him all the cattle upon a thousand hills. The Lord shews himself very pitiful and of tender mercy, when he puts an end to the controversies of his servants, by vindicating their credit, and making it appear, that they have spoken of him, and of his ways, the thing that is right, or more rightly than their opposers and reproachers.” Every preacher waits for just such a tender vindication from the Lord.

The End

Joseph Caryl did not live to see his preaching vindicated. God willed that he die as he had lived, in the patience of hope. Caryl accepted the mission. An eyewitness wrote of his last illness, “His sickness, though painful [was] borne with patience and joy in believing. He lived his sermons.”

He lived his sermons. What higher commendation could people give their preacher? They beheld 24 years of preaching climax in a few days of dying and testified that right to the end, crossing the last deep river, he lived his sermons!

The patient Puritan died in 1673, in his own home, with a company of sorrowing friends gathered round the bed. “He did at last desire his friends to forbear speaking to him, that so he might retire in himself,” one of them wrote in recalling the scene. These last minutes “he spent in prayer; oftentimes lifting up his hands a little; and at last, his friends finding his hands not to move, drew near and perceived he was silently departing from them.”

You have heard of the patience of Joseph Caryl. His patient preaching, living, and dying ring with the same admonition he gave his people through 24 years of preaching: “Take, my brethren, the prophets who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience.”

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.