Complaining of Providence
The people complained—and the Lord set fire to them! That seems rough judgment, for what is man"s speech as set against the divine fire? We must all agree that this was harsh—utterly and unwarrantably severe, out of all proportion to the temper and intention of the people. The people complained: they were in pain, in distress, in weariness—and the Lord burned them! Who can defend the procedure? Who can so subordinate his reason and his sense of right as to commend the justice of this tremendous punishment? So they might say who begin their Bible reading at the eleventh chapter of Numbers. There is only one place at which to begin the reading of the Bible, and that is at the first chapter of Genesis and the first verse; and there is only one place at which the reading of the Bible can be completed, and that is the last verse of the last chapter of the last book. The difficulty of the Christian argument is that people will begin to read the Bible wherever they please. The Bible has but one beginning and one ending, and only they are qualified to pronounce judgment upon it who read the book from end to end, omitting nothing, setting everything in its right place, and causing the whole to assume its proper perspective and colour. It is easily conceivable that many a Prayer of Manasseh, opening the Bible at this point and beginning his acquaintance with the sacred record at this incident, might exclaim—How harsh the divine action I how devoid not of reason only, but of justice! Who can worship a God who sets fire to people who, living in a wilderness, venture to complain? Who says so?—the man who does not understand the case. Who complains against God?—only he who does not know the meaning of the divine movement, the scope of the divine outlook, the purpose of the divine beneficence. Was this the first time the people had complained? Was the voice of whining quite new in the camps of Israel? The Bible does not begin with the Book of Numbers. Read the Book of Exodus, notably the fourteenth and following chapters up to the time of the giving of the law, and you will find complaint following complaint; and what was the divine answer in that succession of reproaches? Was there fire? Did the Lord shake down the clouds upon the people and utterly overwhelm them with tokens of indignation? No. When the Israelites first complained of the pursuing Egyptians, and asked if there were not graves enough in Egypt that they should have been dragged out into the wilderness to be buried, what was the answer?—Stand still and see the salvation of God. When the people complained at Marah, saying,—This water is bitter, and we cannot drink it,—did the fire descend? No spark fell from the angry heavens, but the waters were sweetened, every tang of bitterness being taken out of the pool. When the people complained of their wilderness life and having nothing to eat, what was the answer? Contempt? A storm such as fell upon Sodom and Gomorrah? No such reply was given; but the Lord said,—I will rain down food upon the sandy places, and all you shall have to do will be to go out and gather it. The people complain again—and the Lord burns them! To some murmuring there is but one reply that can be appreciated. The Lord is full of tenderness and compassion,—yea, infinite in piteousness and love is he; but there is a point when his Spirit can no longer strive with us, and when he must displace the persuasions of love by the anger and the judgment of fire.
But this is not the whole case. The people were not complaining only. The word complaint may be so construed as to have everything taken out of it except the feeblest protest and the feeblest utterance of some personal desire. But this is not the historical meaning of the word complaint as it is found here. What happened between the instances we have quoted and the instance which is immediately before us? Until that question is answered the whole case is not before the mind for opinion or criticism. What then had taken place? The most momentous of all incidents. God had said through Moses to the people of Israel,—Will you obey the law? And they stood to their feet, as it were, and answered in one unanimous reply,—We will. The spirit of obedience having been, as we have seen, thus created, the law was given in detail. You remember the criticism passed upon this circumstance. The law was not given, and then obedience demanded; obedience was promised, and then the law was given. The Ten Words are an answer to a pledge; the pledge committed the people to the Ten Words. What had they said in their pledge? They had uttered a vow which is seldom realised in all the fulness and pathos of its meaning; they had said,—We will have none other gods beside thee. So the people were wedded to their Lord at that great mountain altar; words of fealty and kinship and Godhood had been exchanged, and now these people that had oft complained and had then promised obedience, and had then sworn that they would have none other gods beside Jehovah, complained—went back to their evil ways; and the Lord, who takes out his sword last and only calls upon his fire in extremity, smote them—burned them. And this will he do to us if we trifle with our oaths, if we practise bad faith towards the altar, if we are guilty of malfeasance in the very sanctuary of God. To criticise Providence—who is fit for that high judgment? Providence is a large word; it is like the horizon, encompassing all things with a line that cannot be touched, including all things, yet without bond or token of humiliation. Who can criticise the Providence of life—that marvellous power that lights up the world in the morning, curtains it off with a veil of darkness night by night, blesses its soil with fertility, fills its channels with streams and rivers, feeds the roots of its tiniest flowers, paints the wings of its frailest insects, leads like a cloud by day and like a fire by night, that numbers the hairs of the head of every child living in the Father"s house? Who has mind enough, penetration enough, judgment enough, to call God to his bar and pronounce sentence upon the Infinite? We are vexed by details; we are blinded by the immediate dust of the road. We are not called to judgment, but to acquiescence, to acceptance, to gratitude, to hope. To criticise God is to usurp the divine throne. Let who will pass their insane judgments upon the infinite scale of life; let it be ours, where we cannot understand, to believe; where we cannot direct, to accept, and in all things to kiss the rod and bless the Hand that lifts it. This is not the surrender of reason; it is the baptism and consecration of understanding.
Were the people content with complaining? They passed from complaining to lusting, saying, "Who shall give us flesh to eat? We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic: but now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes.... And the people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in a mortar, and baked it in pans, and made cakes of it"—and grumbled the while because Egyptian appetite was excited within them. There is a philosophy here. You cannot stop short with complaining. Wickedness never plays a negative game. The man who first complains will next erect his appetite as a hostile force against the will of God. A marvellous thing is this, to recollect our lives through the medium of our appetites, to have old relishes return to the mouth, to have the palate stimulated by remembered sensations. The devil has many ways into the soul. The recollection of evil may prompt a desire for its repetition. Worldliness has, no doubt, its pleasant memories. Let us be just to all men. The worldly life is not without its sensations of pleasure and gratification. We do not expect men to enter the sanctuary and forget all the old days as if they had had no pleasure in them. Old tastes will revive; the tongue will be stirred to new desires; an odour in the air will remind you of the feast you have abandoned; the sight of an old companion may drive you to wish for just one more day in the old house of bondage, in the old sensual relations. We live a very delicate life. We are not far from the enemy at any one point in our history. The sight of a face may awaken within us influences which we had supposed to be dead; the resonance of an old song may bring back the memory of black nights consecrated to the service of the devil with a will. We must not be harsh upon those who remember the pleasant side of Egyptian life. We may now think of the old days with some pleasure:—how free the riotous dance was; how eager our appetite at the feast; how we relished the ardent poison; how we enjoyed the exchange of passionate looks and words! And if a longing sometimes steals in upon the heart, putting back its prayer and threatening its overthrow, this may not be sin, it may be a severe temptation, a call to a tremendous struggle; and if in that struggle the poor soul may fall for a moment, yet, if its uppermost desire be true, though it fall it shall not be utterly cast down. If any man has escaped the snare of drunkenness, or the snare of evil indulgence of any kind, and yet now and again feels as if, after all, the old days had charms and pleasures, that transient feeling is not necessarily a sin on the part of the man who experiences its pain; it is a temptation of the evil one, and is only to be put down by nobler prayer, by a sharper, keener cry for omnipotent defence.
The public complaint affected the bravest spirit in the camp. Moses was utterly tired out. I wonder that all leaders are not occasionally driven to extremity by sheer disgust at public ingratitude. Moses said, "Kill me... out of hand." Moses was not a man who naturally longed for extermination; he was a soldier; he was born to be a leader and a commander of the people; but continual friction, daily exasperation, eternal misunderstanding, and implied insult, wrought in him a state of mind which expressed itself not only in a desire but in a prayer that he might die. Was the leader paid? Was the leader pampered? Was a separate table provided for Moses in the wilderness? Did he not throw himself into the common lot and live the life of the common people of the desert? Yet, notwithstanding, he was the subject of daily reproach and bitterest criticism. Who knows what it is to carry a thousand lives in his heart? Who knows the difficulties of the shepherd"s life? Who understands the daily pain of the pastor"s heart? What has he to do? To sympathise with all kinds of experiences; to understand all the varied qualities of human life and human desires; to transfuse himself into conditions and relations apparently far remote from his own central gift and call of God; to make prayer for a thousand suppliants. It is no easy task. We should be gentler with men who have given themselves to be our pastors, and to carry us somehow in their great hearts. A bitter word is easily spoken, but it is not easily dislodged from the memory of love. Neglect is easily shown—coldness, contempt, disregard, want of appreciation; but all the time you are bringing the pastor, the shepherd, the leader, the Moses, to desire to die. There is another manslaughter than the vulgar shedding of blood; there is a heart-murder: there are crucifixions without visible crosses. People do not always come to the assault with the avowed purpose of killing or injuring; but for want of consideration and the simplest instincts of justice, they tear men to pieces; they say, in ghostly throngs around the good man"s bed,—You shall not sleep to-night; we will tear the sleep from your eyelids and vex you with a thousand tormenting memories. Let us cease from the number of those who criticise the ways of Providence and kill the messengers of Heaven.
God found assistance for Moses,—the only answer Moses could understand at the time. God"s answers are accommodated to the state of our intelligence and our moral feeling. To have seventy men moved by a spirit kindred to your own is an answer which can easily be understood. Divine and spiritual replies had been given to Moses again and again; but God says,—The poor soul wants something more visible and substantial this time; I never saw him so borne down,—a man"s heart so stout of will, so faultless in its sacred obstinacy; but his bold face looked blanched to-day, his commanding voice hesitated and struggled in utterance to-day; I must give him a new reply. So seventy men were called out who were filled with a kindred spirit, and the Lord said, in effect, to Moses,—I have multiplied thee by seventy: now play the man. Wondrous are the answers of God! They who have studied them most are the most assured in their Christian faith; such men do not need wordy arguments to convince them as to the utility of prayer: they found the answer to the argument on the prayer itself.
What did Moses do? He took heart again. When he heard of the fire at the outside of the camp—burning, singeing, scorching—he said,—Lord, put the fire out! He prayed for the very people that had very nearly killed him. Herein, he anticipated Christ John said—"Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them?" The Lord said: "Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of." Two irregular men in the camp began to prophesy; and the message was taken to Moses that another kind of fire had broken out—a species of spiritual and official insanity. Moses said,—Let them alone; good water comes from good fountains, wise words flow from wise minds; do not feel envious on my account; "would God that all the Lord"s people were prophets!" That is the philosophy of progress—not dragging down the one prophet to the level of those who might prophesy, but lifting up the common camp until it is moved by divine inspirations. The great preacher has no fear of other preachers arising; the greatest preacher would say,—Put all the churches in a row, and let him who knows most of God prove his knowledge. Have no fear of inspired men, no fear of the multiplication of their number, and do not be jealous of their success; when they succeed, we succeed. The Church is one, and every minister should claim brotherhood with every other minister; to insult one of the brethren ought to be felt to be an insult to the entire fraternity. Joshua thought that Moses would feel rather angry that other people were beginning to usurp his function. Would to Heaven there were fewer Joshuas of this kind and for this purpose! for such tale-bearers work no end of mischief in every circle into which they enter, and none the less mischief that they say—Our motive was pure, our intention was good; we heard these irregular persons exercising an irregular ministry, and we were concerned for the traditional unity of the Church. Have no such concern. The one man the Lord does not need is the tale-bearer. If he must speak, let him go out into a wide and solitary place, in the deepest darkness of the night, and speak his insanity to the unheeding winds. "Would God that all the Lord"s people were prophets!" If they were all preachers, they would sympathise more with preachers than they do; if they were all commanders of armies, they would long for some army to command; if they had greater trials, they would have tenderer patience.
How did the Lord treat Moses? He asked him one question, "And the Lord said unto Moses, Is the Lord"s hand waxed short?" We always forget the divine element. Moses says,— indeed?" It is not a question for you; the battle is not yours, but God"s. "Is the Lord"s hand waxed short? Thou shalt see now whether my word shall come to pass unto thee or not." The people got their way. The Lord said,—You shall have flesh enough to eat; I will find it: I will send out the winds to bring it, I will command the clouds to shed it; you shall have flesh enough. And whilst they ate the flesh—ate it to satiety—the judgment of the Lord fell upon them,—"And the Lord smote the people with a very great plague," and in that wilderness a great cemetery was dug. The Lord could not be harsher to us sometimes than to answer our prayers. Pray for fine weather, pray for the rain of manna, pray that flesh may be given in the wilderness and fowls in places out of the way; but having so prayed, say, "Nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done," and to that prayer God always sends an angel in reply.
The Israelites murmuring over their heavenly food looked back with regret to the melons and cucumbers, which they had eaten so freely even in Egypt, the land of their captivity. So plentiful are these fruits and vegetables in this and other hot and sandy countries, that they grow luxuriantly either with or without cultivation, climbing up the trees and shrubs, shading the roofs of the native dwellings with their broad green leaves, or covering the ground, which would otherwise be a desert, making it as a garden in fertility and beauty. The weary traveller pauses on his way when he sees from afar the vine-shaped leaves of the water-melon in the Indian cornfields, and he turns aside to seek with eagerness for the delicious fruit, which he is sure of finding cold and refreshing in the hottest season. The cucumber is also most grateful to the taste; cooling to the over-heated frame, and an incentive to more substantial and supporting food than would otherwise be desired in these tropical countries. The God of love seems so lovingly to have provided for the inhabitants of these and all climates the food most suitable for nourishing and refreshment. Now the Israelites had heavenly food, and they needed none other, but (it is the story of a human heart) they must look back to the cucumbers and melons of Egypt.
Almighty God, thou hast set every one in his place. There is one God. We desire to accept thy will as complete and final. May every man know the calling wherewith he is called of God, and standing therein with all gratitude and patience, may he do his day"s work as unto the Lord and not unto men. We accept the appointments of Heaven, saying,—Even Song of Solomon, Father: for so it seemeth good in thy sight. Thou art the Husbandman, and thy will in the vineyard who may question? The garden is thine, and the field, and all the growths of the earth spring out of thy goodness, and are blessed with thy smile. All souls are thine. Every living thing derives its pulse from God"s eternity. We will then say,—This is the Lord"s world, and God is the Sovereign of the earth, and the Most High controls all life and time. The Lord"s will be done. God"s blessing be our only heaven. Then we shall be always contented, and our soul shall live the life of peace, because of harmony with purposes divine. Thou dost fix the measure of our days; thou drawest the line and sayest,—This is the end. There we lie down at thy bidding seeing only thy purpose, hearing only thy voice, and being filled with thy Spirit; we know no shame or fear. Thou dost send us upon our errands, and thou dost fix the time of their completion. It is not in man to add one inch unto his stature, to make one hair black or white. Thou hast given us liberty, but thou hast enclosed that liberty within boundaries of thine own measurement. We are still thine—bound to thy throne, working out thy will in this way or in that, and certainly bringing to pass the purposes of eternity. Show us that all the house is ordered from heaven. Deliver us from the vain idea that we can extend our boundaries and inheritances in our own name and strength. May we know that God lives and rules and directs ail things, and that he means to judge the earth in righteousness by that Man whom he has ordained, even by Jesus Christ, a Priest for ever and unchangeable. Then we shall have rest in the soul: a broad sunshine will make the whole life glad: the valleys shall be lifted up to the levels, and the mountains shall be brought down and made plain before our feet, and life shall be a harmonious movement towards the blessedness of immortality. We desire thus to reap the harvest of great faith; we would no longer be merely in the seedtime, but, thy will consenting, we would thrust our sickle into the golden harvest and make our souls fat and prosperous on the bounty of Heaven. We would live the life of strong men; we would be confident in faith, assured in sanctified hope, resolute in holy consecration of heart; and thus our life, though long will be short, though short will be long; we shall not know where the common time ends and the Sabbatic hour begins, where the human ceases and the divine interposes. We would be in God, in Christ; we would be ruled by the Holy Ghost, we would live the upper life; we would see God in our disappointments and acknowledge the grace of Heaven in our humiliation, and would be brought to know that there are no inferior places in the Church, that to be a servant of Christ is to be as an angel of God, and to be a doorkeeper in the sanctuary is to be engaged in the highest of human service. Work in us these holy feelings; comfort us with all needful promise; stimulate us by such inspiration as our necessity or exhaustion may require; and, at the end—not knowing it as the end, but hailing it as the beginning—may we know that Christ hath made us more than conquerors. Amen.
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"Is the Lord"s hand waxed short?"— Numbers 11:23
The question which will bring all other inquiries into right relation.—The inquiry is based on history. The history of the world is the history of the divine hand.—The question points to the fact that the Lord"s hand has hitherto always been equal to the occasion.—If the hand of the Lord could wax short the throne of God would be destroyed by that very fact.—Providence continues only so long as Godhead continues; to be God is to be Almighty; to be other than Almighty is to be less than God.—The person making the inquiry is supposed to have had personal experience of the power of the divine hand.—Let every devout man put this inquiry to himself in all the varying circumstances of life; in perplexity, in extremity, in the agony of doubt, in the experience of bereavement, and, in short, at every point in the circle of life.
To be strong theologically, that is to say, to have a clear conception of God"s presence and action in life, is to be strong morally and socially.—The inquiry certainly suggests that some circumstances wear the appearance which justifies the very solemn and awful fear.—We gain nothing by ignoring such circumstances.—The wicked are often highly exalted and invested with disastrous influence; the righteous often seem to be left to themselves, and made to feel that their godliness is the reason of their poverty or pain.—The bad man may put this inquiry in a tone of mocking and contempt, and may have some justification for his tone.—Take the case of Jesus Christ himself when he suffered upon the cross: bad men challenged God to appear on behalf of their victim, and no response was made from the darkening heavens.—From this great case of agony lessons may be drawn suitable to every form of unhappy experience.—"Consider him who endured such contradiction of sinners against himself."
"Handfuls of Purpose"
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"Enviest thou for my sake?"— Numbers 11:29
We often justify our worst actions by pleading that they are one on account of others.—The thief may say that he steals in order to save life with the money.—We may claim to be so jealous for the Lord of hosts as utterly to misrepresent his Spirit.—We may be so anxious to honour the institutions of Christianity as to violate all its charities and benedictions.—Infidelity may be opposed in an unchristian spirit.—The great leaders of the Church never feared what is termed competition, simply because their power is not merely official, but is personal and ennobling.—Instead of desiring that the voices of prophesying should be silent Moses expressed a desire that all the Lord"s people were prophets.—Greatness does not depend upon surrounding littleness where moral influence is in question.—Mont Blanc may be the greater because of the depressions which surround it, but this can afford no analogy in the estimate of moral majesty.—When other people become prophets they will more appreciate the prophetic dignity of Moses.—Envy of the kind which is deprecated is a subtle expression of selfishness.—The men who burned with this envy wished their leader to suffer no loss of official supremacy, not knowing that Moses was part only of the great commonwealth, and that the prophetic power of others illustrated and confirmed the prophetic energy which had marked the great legislator.—It is indeed part of the function of a great prophet to make prophets of other people.—Not only was Christ the Light of the world, he invested his disciples with the same character.—Instead of deprecating any possible increase of their light he called upon them to let that light shine before men, and demanded that no light, even though but the glimmer of a candle should be hidden under a bushel.—It is right to protect the authority of great men, but this is best done by excluding every hurtful passion.—Make great men standards of measurement, not discouragements to holy ambition.—Christ, we may reverently say, may put the same inquiry to his Church when men arise with proposals to help the world.—They may call themselves philosophers, reformers, rationalists, or what they please, Jesus Christ is willing that they should work out all their purposes and that they should be tested by the results of their action.—The Church should be generous to all competitors.—Let every man do what he can and he will find in the long run that experience is his best teacher.—There are of course ameliorations which teach the service of influence and which are on no account to be undervalued; in so far as they are helpful Christ will accept the service, and in the degree in which they are genuine they will point to influences beyond themselves.—Call down fire upon no man who does not walk with you.—Instead of envying on account of God"s supremacy, acknowledge the good that is in every man and exhort him to increase it.—Moses would not be an idol to be superstitiously regarded; he would be a leader to be followed, a teacher to be obeyed, an example to be imitated; let us be careful lest our religion amounts to no more than an expression of official envy; when new lights arise let us give them scope; when new voices are heard speaking good things let us listen attentively; our duty is to try the spirits whether they be of God.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Numbers 11". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://pro.studylight.org/
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34