Life a Battlefield
1 Chronicles 10
WE now come to a portion of the history which is so clearly a repetition that we need not follow it in all its well-known detail. Having already treated nearly the whole of the matter at some length, it will be sufficient now to rest at a point here and there which will enable us to fill in some practical and suggestive instruction. Let it be understood however that what we are about to do is rather of the nature of indication than of exposition. The peculiarity of the Bible is that many of its separate sentences admit of being taken out of their proper setting and used as mottoes or maxims bearing upon immediate questions of spiritual interest or actual conduct. When portions of the Bible are so used it must be distinctly remembered that there is an infinite difference between the accommodation of a text and its critical exposition. It is important to keep this vividly in mind, lest the Bible be charged with unnatural and intolerable responsibilities. With this general caution let us proceed.
"Now the Philistines fought against Israel "( 1 Chronicles 10:1).
Yet Israel was chosen of God. Is it possible for men who are specially favoured of heaven to be brought into controversy or war? Will not everything be made plain and clear before them, and will not the enemy flee away in order to let the hosts of God pass through without fear of delay? We find the exact contrary to be the case in practical life. The holier the man the severer the conflict. The way of Jesus Christ was hedged up on every side by direct temptation of the devil, by unbelief, by contempt, by suspicion, and by all manner of hostility. In the most reverent sense of the term God himself has to maintain his own sovereignty by daily controversy. Providence is denied, beneficent purpose in life is not credited. Special inspiration is derided, and ultimate judgment is the subject of stubborn doubt. We must not think we are wrong simply because opposition is energetic and persistent. The battle of the Philistines against Israel was fought in the plain of Jezreel or Esdraelon, the scene of so many of the struggles of ancient history. It would appear as though many of the controversies of the Church were localised in as distinct a manner. What battles have been fought at Rome! What conflicts have there been at Constantinople! What furious assaults have taken place at Westminster! Luther, Calvin, Knox, Wesley, are names which are distinctly associated with battlefields. Then there are questions around which the great controversies of the Church have raged; as, for example, Inspiration, Authority, Miracles, Atonement, Immortality, and many others. The historical ground of the Church in this very matter will one day be the most precious possession of the Church. The battlefield should become a fruitful orchard, and the desert of strife should blossom as the rose. Our remembered battlefields should be amongst our wisest teachers. In conducting the conflict we saw much of human nature; we measured our own strength; we felt our need of supernatural ministry; we uttered our boldest and tenderest prayers; we dispossessed ourselves of many misleading and dangerous illusions. What a battlefield is life! There are more wars in human history than are public to the world. What room for heroism even within the narrowest family circle! But the most desperate of all wars are fought within the heart itself. Many a man can conquer Philistines who cannot subdue his own passions. Moreover there is help in the conduct of public or open war arising from the knowledge and sympathy of observing friends; but in the wars of the soul even sympathy can take no part because of the very secrecy of the tremendous battle. No man can tell all his thoughts. The hesitation of the tongue may sometimes betray the reality of the inward struggle, but never can the most confiding heart tell all the detail of its conflict and sorrow. But is life all battle, are not many quiet victories won, is there not a ministry of the Spirit as well as a temptation of the devil? Justice demands that we look at both aspects of life"s tragedy and so learn that the ways of the Lord are equal.
"The battle went sore against Saul"( 1 Chronicles 10:3).
Literally, the battle was heavy upon Saul, like a burden crushing him to the earth. They that shot with the bow came upon him; and he shuddered greatly before the shooters. Why was the battle sore against the king of Israel? Saul believed himself to be forsaken of God, and therefore to have become the sport of man. Indeed it was this idea of "sport" that embittered Saul"s last moments. He prayed his armour-bearer to draw a sword, and thrust him through therewith, giving as a reason, "lest these uncircumcised come and abuse me," literally "make a toy of" or "sport with." We notice the word in the tenth chapter of Exodus—" Now I have made a toy of Egypt." The battle will go heavily against the Church, just in proportion as the Church is conscious of the departure of God. Here we are reminded of the analogy of the vine and the branches. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine, no more can the Church make vital and fruitful progress, except by continual fellowship with God. Saul was as muscular as ever, as ambitious as ever, and as energetic as ever, but he had lost the consciousness of the nearness of the Almighty. What are all church buildings, formularies, ceremonies, pecuniary resources, literary achievements, when the Spirit of God has been grieved or quenched? Hence the need for continual praying for the baptism of the Holy Ghost. Every day should now be a day of Pentecost. Not even the most trivial act should be done except in the spirit of prayer and trust. So long as we think that some things in the Church are spiritual, and other things are temporal, we shall bring a divided mind to bear upon our work. Communion with God will help a man to do every part of his duty with a joyful heart. It is joy of heart that turns labour into delight, and that banishes from the spirit all the calculations and devices of a hireling. Although the battle went sore against Saul, we must not suppose that Saul represented an unblest cause. The reason may be in Saul himself, rather than in the cause for which he fought. The situation does not lie between the sunrise and the sunset of one little day. By-and-by we shall come upon the spiritual explanation of all things. It is popular to contemn metaphysical study as unpractical and tedious; but we have had history enough to show that the commonest incidents go back into metaphysical reasons, and that not until the metaphysical has been purified, will practical life as it is sometimes too narrowly described, be really virtuous and beneficent. The Philistines who came up from Egypt, and shot their arrows against Saul, might boast themselves of their superior strength and skill, little knowing that in congratulating themselves, they were operating in total ignorance of the reality of the case. The enemy sometimes laughs too soon. Many who suppose themselves to be fighting against God, may in very deed be used by the Almighty for the infliction of his judgments. Many a Philistine has laughed at the perplexities and failures of the Church, imagining that by his own wit he had brought contempt upon the people of God; but events have shown that the very people whom he had momentarily discomfited had brought themselves within his malign power, by unfaithfulness to their sacred trusts. We know in common life how unfaithfulness disables the firmest strength. When conscience gives way, all outward fortresses crumble into dust. It is only when we know that we are spiritually right, that we can conduct every battle fearlessly, and in assured hope of success. Sometimes leaders, captains, and commanders, have to be overborne or displaced, in order that the great cause which they fail to grasp, and adequately to represent, may vindicate its own claim to a position of confidence and honour. It does not follow that because a man has been once a leader, that he must always be at the head of the army. Sometimes by sin, sometimes by obvious incapacity, sometimes by the infirmity of old age, the very princes of the Church are displaced and put behind. There are some trusts which we only keep as long as we keep our character. Alas! poor Saul had fallen from his moral elevation, and when he went out to war he went out to die.
"And it came to pass on the morrow, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, that they found Saul and his sons fallen in mount Gilboa. And when they had stripped him, they took his head, and his armour, and sent into the land of the Philistines round about, to carry tidings unto their idols, and to the people. And they put his armour in the house of their gods, and fastened his head in the temple of Dagon"( 1 Chronicles 10:8-10).
Samuel refers to Saul"s three sons. The Philistines stripped Saul and carried off his head,—in Samuel we read "and they cut off his head, and stripped his armour off." A kindred expression occurs in Genesis. "Pharaoh will lift thy head from off thee" ( Genesis 40:19). This verse shows how strictly local was the conception of deities implied in this act of the Philistines; their idea was that their idols could neither see nor hear beyond their own temples. We have seen this illustrated with some detail in 1 Kings 20:23. In the tenth verse our text literally reads,—"and his skull was fastened in the house of Dagon." In the First Book of Samuel ( 1 Samuel 31:10) the expression is varied, viz, "and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan."
This passage abounds in mournful monition. Consider the beginning of Saul"s history and compare with it this melancholy close. Who could have anticipated a catastrophe so pitiful? Here is not only overthrow in battle but an infliction of the most withering contempt. At the beginning we found the divine vocation, holy anointing, royal felicitation, and every sign of influence and fame. Saul seemed to begin his royal career on the very top of the mountain, now look at the close of the day which opened so brightly. "Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall." Many men begin with influential parentage, social station, ample education, pecuniary competence, yet they travel a downhill road, falling first into neglect and then into oblivion. The whole lesson is cautionary. "I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree. Yet he passed away, and, lo, he was not: yea, I sought him, but he could not be found." How few are the men who have had a more favourable beginning than Saul! If Saul fell, what guarantee is there that the strongest may not be thrown down? "Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe." Physical greatness, social security, public applause, are being continually rebuked, yea, humiliated and put to shame. Yet men covet them, pay a heavy price for them, boast of them with exceeding pride. How difficult it is to teach men Wisdom of Solomon, even by the sternest facts, and the bitterest experience! The proverb wisely says, "Call no man happy until he is dead." The meaning is that at the very last a man may make a slip which will bring his whole life into degradation, in every sense of the term. As we have often had occasion to say, there is but a step between man and death—not physical death only, but the death of character, reputation, and influence. What a gloating time for the Philistines when the dead giant was absolutely in their hands! How they laughed over the fallen king, how they tried his muscle and measured his girth and commented upon his stature, and then struck a blow of contempt upon his royal head! Who respects a man when he is no longer able to defend himself? Who does not throw a contemptuous word at the man whose fortunes have been blighted? Under such circumstances the quality of character is tested. Consider how David lamented the overthrow of Saul, how bitter was his grief, how eloquent his pathos! David had been misunderstood by Saul and subjected to all manner of degradation by the king, yet when Saul died David"s voice was deepest and loudest in lamentation. It remains with each man to say whether a good beginning shall have a good ending. This is a question of personal discipline, holy fellowship with God, and an acceptance of all processes which have been divinely established for the training and sanctification of man. The word comes with special urgency to young persons, to men of influence, to successful men, and to all who are plied by the temptations incident to high station and wide influence.
"So Saul died for his transgression which he committed against the Lord" ( 1 Chronicles 10:13).
Now we touch the real reason of things. The story was incomplete until this explanation was added. The lesson comes up again and again in history that behind all disorder there is to be found either a moral reason for penalty, or a moral reason for chastening. "The wages of sin is death." There is no escape from this inexorable law. Who can fight against the Almighty and prevail? Put a tombstone near the oak in Jabesh and write for an epitaph—"So Saul died for his transgression." Is not this an epitaph appropriate to the whole human race? What need have we for more epitaphs than one? "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." The sin of Saul is particularly indicated—"even against the word of the Lord which he kept not, and also for asking counsel of one that had a familiar spirit." Saul"s unfaithfulness was thus twofold, viz, first, neglect of the divine word, and secondly the consultation of a necromancer. Saul broke the general law of his people,—"Turn ye not to the necromancers" ( Leviticus 19:31). And beside this he violated the special command which was addressed to himself. It is true that Saul had inquired of Jehovah before consulting the witch of Endor, "but the Lord answered him not, neither by the dreams, nor by the vision, nor by the prophets." Saul was impatient, obstinate, and ambitious, and having deprived himself of intercourse with heaven, he sought to create a new altar and a new deity. The historian does not scruple to say that God slew the first king of Israel. God works through instrumentality, and what he empowers he is said to have done himself. This holds good alike in punishment and in restoration; hence the Assyrian conquerors were the servants of God in scourging guilty people, and Cyrus was also his servant when he fulfilled all the pleasure of God. The frankness of Scripture in all its explanations is not the least worthy of its characteristics. At the very first, God charged sin upon Adam saying, "Hast thou eaten of the tree whereof I commanded that thou shouldest not eat?" and in this moral reason he found the explanation of Adam"s absence from the usual place of meeting. All through the line of history the same standard is set up. When the world was drowned, it was because man had sinned; when fire and brimstone fell upon the cities of the plain, it was because ten righteous men could not be found within all their borders. And now Saul dies because he has committed transgression against the Lord. There is only one way of life, and that is the way of obedience, trust, and love. Why should we attempt to escape the arrangements of God? Why should the tree tear itself up by the roots and try to bring forth blossom and fruit without connecting itself with the great currents of sustenance? All that man can do by his own hand is to commit suicide. From the beginning until now man has been engaged in the awful tragedy of self-slaughter. The Lord exclaims through the prophet, "O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself, but in me is thy hope." We must all turn to the Living One if we ourselves would live. Nor need we hesitate about doing Song of Solomon, for God loves us and yearns for us and continually cries, "Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die?" There is nothing along the road of sin, how many soever may be the flowers which grow by the wayside, but failure, disappointment, shame, and death. Here the great gospel of Jesus Christ breathes its instruction, its welcome, its benediction. Come, let us return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon us; and remember that it is said of him that he will abundantly pardon.
Almighty God, thou givest unto all men liberally, and there is no grudging in thy gift. Thou dost ask us to bring forth all our vessels, that they may be filled: our vessels are too few, thy rain is infinite. We thank thee for the opportunities in life which are distinctly religious. Every hour is an opportunity, but some hours are like doors that fall back upon heaven, showing its wealth and light and glory. May such hours often occur in our history; then shall every day be precious, then shall every breath be a possibility of God"s coming to us in larger measure, in fuller, tenderer benediction. Thy Son Jesus Christ is our Daysman; in his hands our case is found; he knows us, he lived with us, he communed with us; he is Immanuel—God with us, and God in us. He needed not in his lifetime here that any should testify of Prayer of Manasseh, because he knew what was in man. He still knows the humanity which he represented and for which he died; behold his wounded hands, his pierced feet; behold the blood he shed: in it is the assurance of pardon. We plead it, we hold on to the mystery which it represents, we cannot tell anything concerning it but that we need it all, and need it now, for sin torments, and hell is kindled already. Saviour of the world, Child of time, Ancient of days, take up our poor sob, our feeble prayer, make it thine own, cause it to grow into a prevailing plea. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on 1 Chronicles 10". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://pro.studylight.org/
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34