The Journeys of Israel
This chapter gives a very graphic and instructive picture of a much larger scheme of journeying. The local names may mean nothing to us now, but the words "departed," "removed," "encamped," have meanings that abide for ever. We are doing in our way, and according to the measure of our opportunity, exactly what Israel did in this chapter of hard names and places mostly now forgotten. Observe, this is a written account:—"And Moses wrote their goings out." The life is all written. It is not a sentiment spoken without consideration and forgotten without regret: it is a record—a detailed and critical writing, condescending to geography, locality, daily movement, position in society and in the world. It Isaiah, therefore, to be regarded as a story that has been proved, and that will bear to be written and rewritten. Who would write again a mere dream? Who would spend ink upon so vapoury a thing as a nightmare? If Israel had passed through the Red Sea in some distorted dream, would Moses have cared to make actual history of it—at least, in form and expression, for there is no hint in all the story that the man is parabolising or drawing upon a vivid and masterful imagination? The whole experience has been long past, and here it is recalled and set down with a firm hand, without hesitancy or staggering. Here it stands like stern history, plain fact,—something that did actually and positively occur. Men may write about miracles so frequently as to divest them of the element which first touched surprise and awakened suspicion through the medium of the imagination. We may read of miracles until we lose their pomp and their meaning. But life is a miracle: every day is a sign from heaven. We have outgrown the infantile mind which could only see miracles in form and hear them in noise and be amazed at them in tumult and earthquake and varied violence, and now we see the meant-miracle, the ever-intended wonder, of life coming out of death, light springing upon darkness and chasing it away with victorious power, as if one bright beam could slay a million nights. So now, in the absence of startling phenomenon and tumult and vision apocalyptic, we see in quietness itself a miracle, in light a token, in summer the wonderworking power of the loving God. Life is twice written. We have amongst us what are termed, by some stretch of imagination occasionally encroaching upon the impossible, "biographers." It is a complimentary term. Biography Isaiah, in the deepest and truest sense, impossible. A man cannot write his own life: he can but hint at it, and the only surprise he can feel, when he has finished the page, is amazement at its emptiness. Yet it is good for a man to put down the facts of his life. His birthplace should be dear to him, as also the place where he fought his early battles, and won his first victories, and opened his first gates, and saw his first chances, and struggled in the agony of his first prayers, and seized with the hand of faith the first blessings of heaven meant for his soul"s nurture and strengthening; and it is good to continue the page, fill it up, turn it over, and to go on to the new page, and charge the whole book with memories intended to express amazement and thankfulness. The one perfect Biographer is God. Every life is written in the book that is kept in the secret places of the heavens. All things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do. Nothing is omitted. The writing is plain—so plain that the blind man may read the story which God has written for his perusal. Who would like to see the book? Who could not write a book about his brother that would please that brother? Without being false, it might yet be highly eulogistic and comforting. But who would like to see his life as sketched by the hand of God? "Enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified." "Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions."
What a monotony there is in this thirty-third chapter. This will be evident to the eye. The reader sees but two words or three, and all the rest are difficult terms or polysyllables unrelated to his life. The terms are "departed," "removed," "went." It is almost pathetic to see how the writer tries to vary his expressions and cannot. Verse after verse he uses the word "departed;" then verse after verse he uses the word "removed;" here and there he said "they went," but back again he comes to "departed," and then to "removed," and back to "went." "They removed... and pitched,"—that is the little story. Is it not so with us too? How dull the days are. How full of tedious similitude is the succession of events. We want variety; we cry for amusement; we sigh for change; we propose rearrangements and Revelation -combinations that we may at least please the eye with what seems to be a varying picture. Very few words are needed for the record of most lives; as to outward and actual event, very few words are needed at all. If you have in any language, say, five thousand words, you can really conduct the business of life upon about five hundred of them. There are great stores of words that are locked up in the prisons of lexicons: they are only wanted now and then, and they are, therefore, but occasionally liberated. The language of actual life is a narrow language which may be learned in a very brief time. So with our daily life: we rise, we sit, we retire; we eat and drink, and bless one another in the name of God; and go round the little circle, until sometimes we say,—Can we not vary all that—and add to it some more vivid line? Has no friend of ours the power of flushing this pale monotony into some tint of blood? Then we fall back into the old lines: we "depart" and "remove" and "pitch;" we "pitch" and "depart" and "remove;"—we come and go and settle and return; until there comes almost unconsciously into the strain of our speech some expressive and mournful sigh. "Few and evil have been the days of thy servant."
Yet, not to dwell too much upon this well-ascertained fact, we may regard the record of the journeys of Israel as showing somewhat of the variety of life. Here and there a new departure sets in, or some new circumstance brightens the history. For example, in the ninth verse we read—"And they removed from Marah, and came unto Elim: and in Elim were twelve fountains of water, and threescore and ten palm trees." Sweet entry is that! It occurs in our own secret diaries. Do we not dwell with thankfulness upon the places where we find the waters, the wells, the running streams, the beautiful trees, and the trees beautiful with luscious fruitage? It is a dull life that has nothing in it about the fountain, and the palm tree, and the beautiful day that seemed to throw its radiance upon a hundred other days and give them some glint of celestial beauty. The pleasant lines are not many, but when they do come they are the more pleasant because of their infrequency. We all remember the beautiful garden in the May-time, when the whole scene was one blossom. How we hastened home to write the story of the garden-day, when everything seemed to be in vernal glee, in high spirits,—bird outvying bird in sparkles of music,—note after note shot out like star after star into the willing and hospitable space;—and the birthday and the wedding-day, and some holy time, quiet like an anticipated Sabbath; and the time of victory in prayer, when we received the answers in the very act of offering the supplications,—times of enlargement and vital communion with God. Then comes the fourteenth verse:—"And they removed from Alush, and encamped at Rephidim, where was no water." Such are the changes in life. We have passed through precisely the transitions here indicated. No water; nothing to satisfy even the best appetences of the mind and spirit; all heaven one sheet of darkness, and the night so black upon the earth that even the altar-stairs could not be found in the horrid gloom; if there was water, it had no effect upon the thirst; if there was bread, it was bitter; if there was a pillow, it was filled with pricking thorn. When we were at Elim, we said we should always be glad: the plash of the fountain and the shade of the palm tree would accompany us evermore; and yet, behold, at Rephidim there "was no water for the people to drink." How singular is Providence!—apparently, so contradictory; apparently, so wanting in consistency. Why is there not one great deep river flowing all the globe around—a belt of blessing?" Why these arid places—the wildernesses without fountains, these deserts unblest with a flower?—Why? In that "Why" there is no suspicion, nor is there one accent of distrust, but there certainly is an expression of wonder. It is so in all departments of life—say, even, in life intellectual. Sometimes the mind has it all its own way; it can see heaven opened and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God; as for language, it knows all the languages of the earth—claims them, absorbs them, repeats them so as to astound every man with the music of the tongue in which he was born. At other times, that same life seems nothing, has no language, no vision, no touch of God"s presence or hint of God"s blessing. We go from Elim to Rephidim in that department of life. There is another variety of the story; the thirty-eighth verse presents it:—"And Aaron the priest went up into mount Hor at the commandment of the Lord, and died there." Is that line wanting in our story? All men do not die on mountains. Would God we may die upon some high hill! It seems to our imagination nearer heaven to die away up on the mountain peaks than to die in the low damp valleys. Granted, that it is but an imagination. We need such helps: we are so made that symbol and hint and parable assist the soul in its sublimest realisation of things divine and of things to come. There is a black margin upon every man"s diary,—here a child died, there a sweet mother said good-bye, there a strong father—the man who was never tired, the tower of strength—said he must go home.
This, also, presents a focalised life: all the lines are tending to one point. So it is in our own story. What is that point? the modern teacher might say. It is a grave. That is only intermediately so; that is but atheistically so. We are moving to the tomb—to the one black gate that keeps us out of the city of light; and we will, in God"s strength, unlock it, break it, triumph over it and all the strength it represents, and join the blood-washed throng of holy victors on the other side. We will not finish the song with the word "tomb," it is no poetry whose ultimate syllable is in the grave. We are moving—if in Christ, washed by his blood, pardoned through his propitiation, to the land of light and summer and blissful immortality. "Every beating pulse we tell leaves the number less;" every night we "pitch our moving tent a day"s march nearer home." Whilst we look at the various localities and their relation to one another upon the map—now moving north, now south, now east, now west, we say,—What is the meaning of this tumultuous movement? It is only so broken up within a small compass, measured by heaven"s meridian, the direction is in one line, at the end of which burns all the warmth and light of heaven.
And yet, there is an unwritten life. This cannot be all: there must be some reading between the lines. Life was never an affair of such grim and unfamiliar polysyllables: between the lines, there must have been loving, praying, weeping, suffering, rejoicing, wedding, dying, fierce word, and word of benediction. This is but a river-map: all the cities have to be filled in and all the city-life to be created. Still, wherein it is but an outline it is like our own story as we ought to tell it or represent it to others. No man knoweth the spirit of a man but the spirit itself that is within the Prayer of Manasseh, and that spirit has revelations for which there is no language—visions that cannot be syllabled and printed to the eye and apprehension of outside observers and critics.
A visit to Mount Hor (Jebel Harùn, "Mount of Aaron"), or at least a distant view of its wild precipices and ravines, helps to make the visit to Petra memorable. Here it was that Aaron, the priest laden with years and weary with the toil of the desert-wandering, was "gathered to his people." Even Scripture has few more solemn and majestic pictures than this of the two aged men—brothers in heart and sacred service—ascending with the youthful Eleazar to this wild mountain-top. "In his full priestly dress" walked Aaron to his burial. He knew it; and so did all in that camp, who now, for the last time, reverently and silently looked upon the venerable figure of him who these forty years had ministered unto them in holy things. There were no farewells. In that typical priesthood, all depended on the unbroken continuance of the office, not of the person. And hence on the mountain-top, Aaron was first unclothed of his priestly robes, and Eleazar his son formally invested with them. Thus the priesthood had not for a moment ceased when Aaron died. Then, not as a priest, but simply as one of God"s Israel, was he "gathered unto his people." But over that which passed between the three on the mount has the hand of God drawn the veil of silence. And so the new priest Eleazar came down from the solemn scene on Mount Hor to minister amidst a hushed and awe-stricken congregation. "And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they mourned for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel." The traditionary tomb of the high-priest is shown to visitors in a vault below a small chapel, which evidently occupies the place of a more imposing structure, and is built out of its ruins. The Bedawin still holds the name of Aaron in great veneration. A singular custom of theirs is to sacrifice a kid or sheep to his memory, in sight of Mount Hor, raising a heap of stones where the blood of the animal has fallen. These heaps are seen all through the neighbouring valley.
—Pictures from Bible Lands, by Samuel G. Green, D.D.
Almighty God, kindle a light in our hearts that can never go out: the light of Christian confidence, the glory of Christian hope; may we walk amidst its beauty, and enjoy its nourishment and warmth. We need the comfort of heaven: we pine for a blessing from on high; we shall know it when we receive it, for none can resemble it in all-tenderness and sufficiency and inspiration. Withhold not thy regard from us, and let thine attention be the outlook of love. We may not say this in our own name, for it is valueless in heaven. We have fallen: we have done the things we ought not to have done; we have forfeited all right of speech with the throne. But Jesus is our Daysman: he is able to lay his hands upon both of us, and to bring us together in happy communion. There is one Advocate with the Father, and he is the Son of man. He pleads our cause; he bears our name as well as thine; and he will plead for us with all the agony of blood, and with all the tenderness of love. He is able to save unto the uttermost all that come unto God by him, seeing that he ever liveth to make intercession for us. We are strong in confidence: we are bold at the Cross. The Cross has turned the throne of judgment into a throne of mercy, and now we come before the King, clothed with the righteousness of his Song of Solomon, and there plead for such blessing as our poor life continually needs. We thank thee for the sacred Book, and that it is written in many places in our mother-tongue. We know it here and there; sometimes we are quite familiar with it: it falls upon us like a remembered song of youth, which made us glad and hopeful in the early time. Here it is a mountain we cannot climb, a cloud we cannot penetrate, a deep river we dare not touch; but oftentimes it is a hill covered with flowers, a cloud bright with chastened light, and a screen that makes glad the city of our life. Help us to read it with the heart, to answer it with the will, and to be found always commenting upon it with the eloquence of an obedient life. Pity us wherein we are weak; have mercy upon us wherein we have forfeited our lives; continue thy blessing unto us wherein we have begun to do right under the guidance of thy Spirit; and, at last, give us an abundant entrance among the heroic band who fought thy fight, O Christ, in thy strength, and won their every victory in thy name. Amen.
The subject is evidently thoroughness. Do the work completely—root and branch, in and out, so that there may be no mistake as to earnestness; and the result shall be security, peace, contentment;—Do the work partially—half and half, perfunctorily; and the end shall be disappointment, vexation, and ruin. Causes have effects; work is followed by consequences. Do not suppose that you can turn away the law of causation and consequence. Things are settled and decreed before you begin the work. There is no cloud upon the covenant, no ambiguity in its terms. He is faithful who hath promised—faithful to give blessing, and faithful to inflict penalty. Faithfulness in God is not a one-sided quality or virtue. Do not fear to call God "Judge." We mistake and misapply the term when we think of it only in its vengeful aspect. To "judge" is to do right. God will "judge the fatherless and the widow," God will "judge" every worker. He will come into the Canaan which he has appointed to us, and see whether we have done the work thoroughly or only partially; if thoroughly, Canaan will be as heaven; if partially and selfishly, then the very land of promise shall become the land of disappointment. It is well the words were spoken before the work began. There is no after-thought with God. Hell is not a recent invention of Omnipotence: it is as old as right and wrong. Let us have no affectation of surprise, no falling-back as from uncalculated violence; the covenant is written in plain ink, uttered in distinct terms—so written, so uttered, that the wayfaring man need not err.
There was so much to be undone in the Canaan that was promised. It is this negative work which tries our patience, and puts our faith to severe tests. We meet it everywhere. The colonist has to subdue the country, take down much that is already put up, root out the trees, destroy the beasts of prey, and do much that is of a merely negative kind, before he begins to sow corn, to reap harvests, and to build a secure homestead. This is the case in all the relations of life. The weed is not the green thing on the surface; that is only the signal that the weed is underneath. The work that has to be done is a work of eradication. The weed must be torn up by its every fibre. We are apt to lop off the top, and think we have completed the work of destruction. We must learn the meaning of the word eradication—the getting out of the root, the sinking right down to the very farthest point of residence, and then having no pity, but pulling out the weed, not for the sake of destruction, but to make room for a flower that shall please the very vision of God. But the colonist is a character of whom we know little. The illustration by being so remote does not immediately touch our life; but an illustration can be drawn from our own experience and conduct. In the work of education, for example, how much has to be undone! When the first thing the teacher has to do is to destroy a man"s supposed Wisdom of Solomon, he encounters the most obstinate hostility of the man. The student comes with lines that have pleased him, with conclusions which he thinks established, and with processes of accomplishing results which he regards as perfect. Solemn is the work of the teacher, even to pathos and tears, when the first thing he has to do with the young man is to tell him that he cannot speak his mother-tongue. At home he was quite an idol in the family; they considered him a paragon; they called upon him to recite his poems and to display his talents, and he answered the challenge in gay response; and now some learned chief in the temple of wisdom tells him that he does not know how to utter the alphabet of his mother-tongue; he battles with him over the very first letter: he will not have it so pronounced but quite otherwise; he will have the alphabet reconstructed as to tone, colour, fire; and, in the end, he who thought himself so excellent in speech will deliver himself in a tongue which will be foreign to those at home. This holds good in nearly every department of education. There is so much to be undone: so many prejudices have to be conquered, so many evil habits have to be eradicated, like the weed we would not spare; so that, at the end of a few months, when idolatrous friends ask how the young student is advancing, they find that he is actually worse at the end of six months than he was when he went to be taught. So he Isaiah, in a certain sense. But we must not punctuate processes by our impatience: we must await the issue; and when the educator says, "It is finished," we may pronounce the word of judgment.
The theory of the Bible is that it has to encounter a human nature that is altogether wrong. It is not our business, at this point, to ask how far that theory is true. The Bible itself proceeds upon the assumption that "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way;" "There is none righteous, no, not one;" "God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions;" there is none that doeth good, no, not one; the whole head and the whole heart are not righteous or true before God. That being the theory of the Bible, see what it proposes to do. What iconoclasm it must first accomplish! How it must swing its terrific arms in the temples of our idolatry and in the whole circuit of our life, breaking, destroying, burning, casting out, overturning, overturning! What is it doing? It is preparing; it is doing the work of a pioneer; it is uttering the voice of a herald. Mark the audacity of the Book! It speaks no flattering word, never uncovers before any Prayer of Manasseh, bids every man go wash and be clean. A book coming before society with so bold a proposition must expect to be encountered with resolute obstinacy. If we suppose we are ready-made to the hand of God, to be turned in any direction he is pleased to adopt, we begin upon a false basis; our theory is wrong, and our conception will lead us to proportionate disappointment. God has to do with a fallen intelligence; an apostate heart, a selfish will; and, therefore, he undertakes much negative work before he can begin constructive processes What a temptation there Isaiah, however, to reserve something. Point to one instance in all the Biblical history in which a man actually and perfectly accomplished the divine will in this matter of destruction. A good deal of destruction was accomplished, unquestionably; but was there nothing left? "What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?" The temptation to reserve something is very strong. Take it as a matter of old companionship. It does seem to be ruthless to cut off the old comrades as with the blow of a sword. They do not understand the process of excision; they say,—We can still be friends; you have changed your theological convictions and your religious standpoint: you attend church, you pay respect to the altar, you read the Bible with a new attentiveness,—let it all be granted; but surely there is neutral ground: there are occupations that are not directly touched by the religious sanctities; surely we need not wholly separate one from another, as if we had never seen each other"s face? Such a plea is not without tenderness: there is a touch of humanity in it; but to the man who is earnestly religious before God there is no neutral ground, there is no secular occupation, there is no non-religious relation; the dew of the heavenly baptism has fallen upon all life, all duty, all suffering. "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new." We cannot clutch time with one hand and eternity with the other, in any sense of dividing them into secular and religious; we cannot serve God and Mammon. Then take the thought in relation to old places, where we used to spend the happy evening, where the recreation was innocent and, in a sense, helpful, reinvigorating jaded faculties, and giving a new start to weary or exhausted impulses. Why not look in just once more, or now and then,—say, annually, on particular occasions, when the men are at their best and the institution is in state? It will look friendly; in fact, we may do good by some such arrangement, because we shall show that we are not Pharisees and pedants; we have not betaken ourselves to a monastic life, but we can return to old places and old associations, and breathe upon them a new spirit. The reasoning is specious: there is no doubt about its plausibility; but take care how you carry a naked candle into a high wind; take care lest the battle should go the other way. It is dangerous for immature experience to expose itself to rooted prejudices and established habits. There is a time in the growth of some lives when a loud laugh may blow out the trembling light of a young profession. Our language, therefore, must be that of caution; the exhortation, charged with tenderness, must begin with the words, "My Song of Solomon," and flow out in most sacred and persuasive emotion. It is not enough to adjure, to hurl the bolt of avenging judgment: we must wrestle and reason and pray.
The words of the text are complete in their force and range. In many a life, great improvement takes place without eradication being perfected. We are not called in the Bible merely to make great improvement. That is what we have been trying to do by our own strength and wit, and which we have always failed in doing. Nowhere do the sacred writers encourage us to make considerable advance upon our old selves. The exhortation of the Bible is vital. Suppose a man should have been addicted to the meanest of all vices—the vice of lying, the vice that God can hardly cure,—that last deep dye that the blood of God"s own Christ"s heart can hardly get at, that defies the very detergents of heaven;—suppose such a man should lie less, is he less a liar? Suppose he should cease the vulgarity of falsehood and betake himself to the refinement of deceit, has he improved? Rather, he has aggravated the first offence—multiplied by infinite aggravations the conditions which first constituted his character. Suppose he should neither lie nor deceive on any great scale, but should betake himself to the act of speaking ambiguously—that is to say, using words in two senses, meaning the hearer to accept the words in one sense, whilst he construes them in another; he then becomes a verbal trickster, a conjurer in speech; he has mental reservations; he has a secret or esoteric backway by which he interprets to his own conscience the language which he uses in public and which he intends to be construed by public lexicography. Has he improved? He has gone to a deeper depth of evil. The vulgar criminal may be hopefully encountered; but the man who has twisted language, coloured and flushed with new significance terms which ought to have been pure in their meaning and direct in their intent; the man who trifles with the conscience and intelligence of his fellow-creatures, and does so in cold blood, is no black criminal: he is a skilled artist in the devil"s pay, and so far in that the divine finger can hardly touch his supposed security. Song of Solomon, we are not called to great improvements, to marvellous changes of a superficial kind: we are called to newness of birth, regeneration, the washing of the Holy Ghost, the renewal—the recreation of the inner man. "Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again." There is a great work of destruction to be done which we dare not undertake. You can never reason down many of the institutions of Christian countries which are at this moment mocking the sanctuary, and secretly laughing with jeers and bitterest sarcasm at Christianity. We must use force in relation to some institutions—not the force of the arm, which is the poorest of all strength, but the force of reasoned law, righteous legislation, laws made at the altar and sanctified by the very spirit of prayer. There are institutions in every nominally Christian city that can burn up any number of tracts, blow away any force of eloquence, turn aside any dart of argument. Nothing can touch them but the mighty arm of rational—that is to say, intelligent and righteous—legislation.
Thoroughness gives confidence in all things. Take it in the matter of language. How many men know just enough of any language not to dare to speak it! How many persons know the first syllables of a word, but dare not commit themselves to a precise termination! The grammar lies where the sting lies, at the tail of the word. Song of Solomon, how we huddle up our terminations, broaden, or sharpen, or blur the final vowels, so that men may not know whether we have used the one vowel or the other, coming out with tremendous emphasis on the syllables about which there is no doubt. Thoroughness gives confidence. The man who understands the language in and out, through and through, speaks off-handedly, freely, with dignified carelessness; he knows that he is fully master of the language, and can speak it with a master"s ease. That is true in theology. If we do not believe our theology, we cannot preach it; if we do not believe the Gospel, we can only preach about the Gospel,—make complimentary references to it, set it in a very dignified place in the lyceum of intellect; but knowing it, we breathe it like a great healing, purifying wind over the whole earth, saying, "One thing I know: once I was blind,—now I see." Where are the Pharisees that can frighten us, or the critics that can displace our crown? Do not go beyond your own knowledge; keep strictly within the line of experience and living testimony; and then you will be Herculean in strength, Job -like in patience, Paul-like in heroism and courage.
If not, punishments will come. If you will not do this, "those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell;"—they will tease you, excite you, irritate you; they will watch for the moments of your weakness, and tempt you into apostasy. What keen eyes the spared enemies have! Looking upon our life, they say,—Now a malign suggestion might be effected—try it; behold, he halts,—Now speak to him, and tell him that just near at hand is a place to which he may resort for the recruiting of his strength; listen! the old emphasis has gone out of his voice: he does not speak as he used to speak: his convictions are halting, faltering,—now say unto him, but gently,—"Where is thy God?" Take him up to an exceeding high mountain: show what he might be under given conditions. Lift him to the pinnacle of the temple, and show that it is possible for a man to hold churches and temples under his feet—to stand above them and to be more than they;—but speak it quietly, softly, as if you had his interest at heart, and, who knows? you may prevail. Has it, then, come to a battle of skill against skill, faculty against faculty? Nothing of the kind. On the Christian side it comes to a question of character. How is that character created and established? By the Spirit of the living God. We cannot explain the process. "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit." If we are to meet temptation by cleverness, it is impossible for any cleverness to rival the ingenuity of the devil; whenever it was a battle of words, the devil won; he is mighty in conversation, he is most excellent in speech. We can only oppose him by the higher Spirit—the divine Spirit, living in the heart, breathing in the soul, established in the character; so that when he cometh, he findeth nothing in us,—altar everywhere, prayer in all the spirit, righteousness at the foundations, and the whole man burning with the presence of the unconsuming fire. When Satan cometh, may he have nothing in us! Let us begin the work of destruction—tear the enemy out, cut him in pieces, and never repeat the habit. Do not say you will touch with the tips of your fingers the Old Canaanitish idols and temptations: say,—Lord of heaven and earth, make me a sword, and give me an arm to wield it; may I go forth as thy warrior, sparing nothing that is impure and unlike thyself. Do not attempt to build a Christian character upon rotten foundations. That is a miracle you cannot accomplish. Do not suppose you can heap up a great pile of noble theological dogmas upon rottenness and bog. The work is foundation work, vital work, work in the heart; and until that negative, iconoclastic work is done, we cannot begin to build. Overturn! overturn! overturn!—then He will come whose right it is.
The Israelites were delivered from Egypt by Moses, in order that they might take possession of the land which God had promised to their fathers. This country was then inhabited by the descendants of Canaan, who were divided into six or seven distinct nations. These nations the Israelites were commanded to dispossess and utterly to destroy. The destruction, however, was not to be accomplished at once. The promise on the part of God was that he would "put out those nations by little and little," and the command to the Israelites corresponded with it; the reason given being, "lest the beast of the field increase upon thee."
The destructive war commenced with an attack on the Israelites, by Arad, king of the Canaanites, which issued in the destruction of several cities in the extreme south of Palestine, to which the name of Hormah was given ( Numbers 21:1-3). The Israelites, however, did not follow up this victory, which was simply the consequence of an unprovoked assault on them; but, turning back, and compassing the land of Edom, they attempted to pass through the country on the other side of the Jordan, inhabited by a tribe of the Amorites. Their passage being refused, and an attack made on them by Sihon, king of the Amorites, they not only forced their way through his land, but destroyed its inhabitants, and proceeding onwards toward the adjoining kingdom of Bashan, they in like manner destroyed the inhabitants of that district, and slew Og, their king, who was the last of the Rephaim, or giants. The tract of which they thus became possessed was subsequently allotted to the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh.
Almighty God, thou hast set us in our places, and we would not change them but at thy bidding. We want to sit, when we are ambitious and left to our vain selves, one on the right hand and the other on the left; but now, being taught of the Spirit and being chastened by daily providence and touched into new sacredness of service and hope by grace divine, we are willing to go as thou dost point the way,—to run, to stand, to serve, to wait;—only give us some foothold within the living circle. Thou wilt not thrust us out "into the darkness immeasurable. God is light, God is love; his eyes are full of tears; his hands are loaded with gifts for men. Comfort us with these words, for our hearts sometimes give way, and we think the lamp of our hope is going quite out, and we never can light it again. We know we are wayward, for we are of the earth: we are rooted in the soil; we carry the clay in our whole form, and every feature is charged with the dullness of the dust. Yet we carry something more: we are filled with the presence of God: we have the divine treasure in an earthen vessel, and the divine treasure burns through the crust and makes it glow with immortal flame. We are made in the image and likeness of God. Sometimes we are all but in heaven: now and again the life-tide rises within us so high that it plashes against the very throne of God; sometimes we say we cannot be kept out of the inner places much longer. Then we come down again to darkness, and strife, and disappointment, and weariness; but, though we may sigh our impatience, we cannot utter our unbelief, for our hearts are still saying, each in its own way,—Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief. Song of Solomon, we are still on the right side: our life is still lifted up in prayer, our souls are not without hope. Song of Solomon, we can bear the jeer and folly of frivolous men; they know not what they say, and they say it for no purpose. We would be found in the tabernacle, in the holy place—just on the borderland that hardly separates earth from heaven; and, being there, we catch occasional warmth and occasional glimpses of better things, and we hear voices that touch our inmost spirit by their subtle music; and we hope, nor spend our hope in unprofitable sentiment, but receive it as an inspiration, and return to heal the sick and help the blind across a busy thoroughfare, and teach ignorance its alphabet, and break bread to the hungry; this is the proof of our hope; were it a merely coloured vapour, we should cast it away, but it is an inspiration: it rouses us to endeavour, it compels us to transfer ourselves into other people, and to carry, where we may, part, at least, of their heavy burdens. We bless thee for this Christian hope; it lives when all things fail; it goes upstairs with us when we go for the last time—never to come down again until we are borne out by devout men; it is the Christian"s inheritance, his immediate and blessed paradise. Help us all according to our need. Speak to the aged pilgrim, and say the last mile is the very sunniest of all the road—quite an eventide blessing resting upon it, a tenderness of light, a kind of opening door in the sky, showing how grand the prospect is. Help the young to measure their days, count them and allot them, setting them down in columns and adding them up, and dividing them wisely, to sec which is day and which is night, which is the young time, with all its blood, and which is the old time when the blood becomes pale and languid; and then let them set themselves to work out, like wise economists and devotees of God, the whole purpose of life"s little day. As for the prodigal, we send after him; our letters are left unanswered—perhaps our prayers may be responded to. We will still think and love and hope, not knowing but the next knock on the door may be the announcement of return. Comfort the sick; they are very ailing and frail and all but breathless; may we give their looks large interpretations of love: may we spare them the trouble of speaking by knowing in looking at them just what they want;—for we, too, shall be sick, and must be waited on. The Lord"s blessing be upon all families: unite them in the holy fear of God; upon all business: purify it from all evil and meanness, and pitiable selfishness. Look upon all kinds of honest life, giving them force and breadth, daily reinvigoration and continual blessing.
We speak our prayer in the sweet name of Jesus, crucified once, crowned for evermore. He died for us—the just for the unjust; he rose again for us to show that death can snatch but a momentary triumph, the final and eternal victory being on the side of life. God be merciful unto us, and bless us, and cause his face to shine upon us; and in the shining of that face, we shall forget all the pale and mocking glory which once made us glad. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Numbers 33". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://pro.studylight.org/
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34