Expositor's Bible Commentary
Then sang Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam on that day, saying,
DEBORAH’S SONG: A DIVINE VISION
THE song of Deborah and Barak is twofold, the first portion, ending with the eleventh verse, a chant of rising hope and pious encouragement during the time of preparation and revival, the other a song of battle and victory throbbing with eager patriotism and the hot breath of martial excitement. In the former part God is celebrated as the Helper of Israel from of old and from afar; He is the spring of the movement in which the singer rejoices, and in His praise the strophes culminate. But human nature asserts itself after the great and decisive triumph in the vivid touches of the latter canto. In it more is told of the doings of men, and there is picturesque fiery exultation over the fallen. One might almost think that Deborah, herself childless, glories over the mother of Sisera in the utter desolation which falls on her when she hears the tidings of her son’s defeat and death. Yet this mood ceases abruptly, and the song returns to Jehovah, Whose friends are lifted up to joy and strength by His availing help.
The main interest of the twofold song lies in its religious colour, for here the pious ardour of the Israel of the judges comes to finest expression. As a whole it is more patriotic than moral, more warlike than religious, and thus unquestionably reflects the temper of the time. What ideas do we find in it of the relation of Israel to God and of God to Israel, what conceptions of the Divine character? Jehovah is invoked and praised as the God of the Hebrews alone. He seems to have no interest in the Canaanites, nor compassion towards them. Yet the grandeur of the Divine forth going is declared in bold and striking imagery, and the high resolves of men are clearly traced to the Spirit of the Almighty. Duty to God is linked with duty to country, and it is at least suggested that Israel without Jehovah is nothing and has no right to a place among the peoples. The nation exists for the glory of its Heavenly King, to make known His power and His righteous acts. A strain like this in a war song belonging to the time of Israel’s semi-barbarism bears no uncertain promise. From the well spring out of which it flows clear and sparkling there will come other songs, with tenderer music and holier longing, -songs of spiritual hope and generous desire for Messianic peace.
1. The first religious note is struck in what may be called the opening Hallelujah, although the ejaculation, "Bless the Lord," is not, in Hebrew, that which afterwards became the great refrain of sacred song.
"For that leaders led in Israel,
For that the people offered themselves willingly:
Bless ye Jehovah."
Here is more than belief in Providence. It is faith in the spiritual presence and power of God swaying the souls of men. Has Deborah seen at last, after long efforts to rouse the careless people, one and another responding to her appeals and seeking her tent among the hills? Has she witnessed the vows of the chiefs of Issachar and Zebulun that they would not be wanting in the day of battle? Not to herself but to the God of Israel is the new temper ascribed. Jehovah, Who touched her own heart, has now touched many another. For years she had been aware of holier influences than came to her from the people among whom she lived. In secret, in the silence of the heart, she had found herself mastered by thoughts that none around her shared. She has well accounted for them. Jehovah has spoken to her, Jehovah caring still for His people, waiting to redeem them from bondage. And now, when her prophetic cry finds echo in other souls, when men who were asleep rise up and declare their purpose, especially when from this side and that companies of brave youths and resolute elders come to her-from the slopes of Carmel, from the hills of Gilead-the fire of hope in their eyes, how otherwise explain the unspringing of energy and devotion than as the work of the Spirit that has moved her own soul? To Jehovah is all the praise.
Common enough in our day is a profession of belief in God as the source of every good desire and right effort, as inspiring the charity of the generous, the affection of the loving, the fidelity of the true. But if our faith is deep and real it brings us much nearer than we usually feel ourselves to be to Him Who is the Life indeed. The existence and energy of God are assured to those who have this insight. Every kindness done by man to man is a testimony against which denial of the Divine life has no power. Though the intellect searching far afield makes out only as it were some few and indistinct footprints of a Mighty Being Who has passed by, seen at intervals on the plains of history, then lost in the morasses or on the rocky ground, there ought to be found in every human life daily evidence of Divine grace and wisdom. The good, the true, the noble constantly appeal to men, find men; and through these God finds them. When a magnanimous word is spoken, God is heard. When a deed is done in love, in purity, in courage or pity, God is seen. When out of languor and corruption and self-indulgence men arise and set their faces to the steep of duty, God is revealed. He in Whom we trust for the redemption of the world never leaves Himself without a witness, whether faith perceives or unbelief denies. The human story unfolds a Divine urgency by which the progress, the evolution of all that is good proceed from age to age. Man has never been left to nature alone nor to himself alone. The supernatural has always mingled with his life. He has resisted often, he has rebelled; yet conscience has not ceased, God has not withdrawn. This living energy of Jehovah, not only as belonging to the past but discovered in the new zeal of Israel, Deborah saw, and in virtue of the revelation she was far before her time. For the fresh life of the people, for the willing self-devotion of so many to the great cause, she lifted her voice in praise to Israel’s Eternal Friend.
2. The next passage may be called a prologue in the heavens. Partly historical, it is chiefly a vision of Jehovah’s age-long work for His people. In words that flash and roll the song describes the glorious advent of the Most High, nature astir with His presence, the mountains shaking under His tread.
The seat of the Divine Majesty appears to the prophetess to be in Seir. She looks across the hills of the south and passes beyond the desert to that place of mystery where God spoke in thunder and proclaimed Himself in the Law. The imagery points to the phenomena of earthquake and a fearful lightning storm accompanied with heavy rain. These, the most striking natural symbols of the supernatural, form the materials of the strophe. Perhaps even as the song is chanted the thunders of Sinai are echoed in a great storm that shakes the sky and rolls among the hills. The outward signs represent the new impressions of Divine power and authority which are startling and rousing the tribes. They have heard no voices, seen no tokens of God for many a year. He Who led their fathers out of bondage, He Who marched with them through the desert, has been forgotten; but He returns, He is with them again. The office of the prophetess is to celebrate God’s presence and excite in the dull souls of men some feeling of His majesty. Sinai once trembled and was dismayed before God. The great peak beside which Tabor is but a mound flowed down in volcanic glow and rush. It is He Whose coming Deborah hears in the beating storm, He Whose victorious feet shake the hills of Ephraim. Have the people forsaken their King? Let them seek Him, trust Him now. Under the shadow of His wings there is refuge; before His arrows and the fierce floods He pours from heaven who can stand?
It has been well said that for the Israel of ancient times all natural phenomena-a storm, a hurricane, or a flood-had more than ordinary import. "Forbidden to recognise and, as it were, grasp the God of heaven in any material form, or to adore even in the heavens themselves any constant symbols of His being and His power, yet yearning more in spirit for manifestations of His invisible existence, Israel’s mind was ever on the stretch for any hint in nature of the unseen Celestial Being, for any glimpse of His mysterious ways, and its courage rose to a far higher pitch when Divine encouragement and impulse seemed to come from the material world." From the images of Baal and the Ashtaroth Israel had turned; but where was their Heavenly King? The answer came with marvellous power when Deborah in the midst of the roiling thunder could say, "Lord, when Thou wentest forth out of Seir, when Thou marchest out of the field of Edom, the earth trembled, the heavens also dropped. The mountains flowed down at the presence of Jehovah." If the people bethought themselves of the clear demonstration of Divine majesty made to their fathers, they would realise God once more as the Ruler in heaven and earth. Then would courage revive, and in the faith of the Almighty they would go forth to victory.
Now was there in this faith an element of reason, a correspondence with fact? Is it fancy and nothing else, the poetic flight of an ardent soul eager to rouse a nation? Have we here an arbitrary connection made between striking natural events and a Divine Person throned in the heavens Whose existence the prophetess assumes, Whose supposed claim to obedience haunts her mind? In such a question our age utters its scepticism.
An age it is of science, of positive science. Toiling for centuries at the task of understanding the phenomenal, research has at length assumed the right to tell us what we must believe concerning the world-what we are to believe, observe, for it is a new creed and nothing else that confronts us here. "The government of the world," says one, "must not be considered as determined by an extramundane intelligence, but by one immanent in the cosmical forces and their relations." Another says: "The world or matter with its properties which we term forces must have existed from eternity and must last forever-in one word, the world cannot have been created. The ever-changing action of the natural forces is the fundamental cause of all that arises and perishes." Or again, not most recent in time but entirely modern in temper, we have the following: "Science has gradually taken all the positions of the childish belief of the peoples; it has snatched thunder and lightning from the hands of the gods. The stupendous powers of the Titans of the olden time have been grasped by the fingers of man. That which appeared inexplicable, miraculous, and the work of a supernatural power has by the touch of science proved to be the effect of hitherto unknown natural forces. Everything that happens does so in a natural way, i.e., in a mode determined only by accidental or necessary coalition of existing materials and their immanent natural forces." Here is dogma forced on faith with fine energy; and what more is to be said when judgment is given-"I have searched the heavens, but have nowhere found the traces of a God"?
We hear the boast that no song of Hebrew seer can withstand this modern wisdom, that the superstition of Bible faith shall vanish like starlight, before the rising sun. To science every opinion shall submit. But wait. It is dogmatism. against belief after all, authority against authority, and the one in a lower region than the other, with vastly inferior sanctions. Natural science declares the present result of its observation of the universe, investigation brief, superficial, and limited to one small corner of the whole. Yet these deliverances are to be set above the science which deals with existence on the highest plane, the spiritual, solving deepest problems of life and conscience, finding perpetual support in the experience of men. The claim is somewhat large; it lacks the proof of service; it lacks verification. Science boasts greatly, as is natural to its adolescence. But at what point can it dare to say, Here is final truth, here is certainty? We do not repel our debt to the discoverer when we maintain that natural science is only watching the surface of a stream for a few miles along its course, while the springs far away among the eternal hills and the outflow into the infinite ocean are never viewed. Are we taunted with believing? Those who taunt us must supply for their part something more than inference ere we trust all to their wisdom. The "Force" that is so much invoked, what is it so far as the definitions of science go? Effects we see; Force never. All statements as to the nature of force are pure dogma. It is declared that there are necessary and eternal laws of matter. What makes them necessary, and who can prove their everlastingness? Using such words men pass infinitely beyond material research-they infer-they assert. In the region of natural science we can affirm nothing to be eternal, and even necessity is a word that has no warrant. It is only in the soul, in the region of moral ideas, we come on that which endures, which is necessary, which has constant reality. And it is here that our belief in God as universal Creator, the Source of power and life, the One Agent, the King eternal, immortal, and invisible, finds root and strength.
The battle between materialism and religious faith is not a battle in which facts are arrayed on one side and inferences and dreams on the other. The array is of facts against facts, as we have said, and with an immense difference of value. Is it an established sequence that when the electricity in the clouds is not in equipoise with that of the earth, under certain conditions there is a thunderstorm? It is surely a sequence of higher moment that when the sense of righteousness seizes the minds of men they rise against iniquity and there is a revolution. There natural forces operate, here spiritual. But on which side is the indication of eternity? Which of these sequences can better claim to give a key to the order of the universe? Surely if the evolution of the ages, so far, has culminated in man with his capability of knowing and serving the true, the just, the good, these facts of his mind and life are the highest of which we can take cognisance, and in them, if anywhere, we must find the key to all knowledge, the reason of all phenomena. Evolutionary science itself must agree to this. In the movements of nature we find no advance to fixity and finality. Nature labours, men labour with or against nature; but the flux of things is perpetual; there is no escape from change. In the efforts of the spiritual life it is not so. When we strive for equalness, for verity, for purity, we have glimpses then of the changeless order which we must needs call Divine. Here is the indication of eternity; and as we investigate, as we experience, we come to certitude, we reach larger vision, larger faith. That which endures rises clear above that which appears and passes.
Returning to Deborah’s song and her vision of the coming of God in the impetuous storm, we see the practical value of Theism. One great idea, comprehensive and majestic, leads thought beyond symbol and change to the All-righteous Lord. To attribute phenomena to "Nature" is a sterile mode of thought; nothing is done for life. To attribute phenomena to a variety of superhuman persons limits and weakens the religious idea sought after; still one is lost in the changeable. Theism delivers the soul from both evils and sets it on a free upward path, stern yet alluring. By this path the Hebrew prophet rose to the high and fruitful conceptions which draw men together in responsibility and worship. The eternal governs all, rules every change; and that eternal is the holy will of God. The omnipotence nature obeys is the omnipotence of right. Israel returning to God will find Him coming to the help of His people in the awful or kindly movements of the natural world. Our view in one sense extends beyond that of the Hebrew seer. We find the purpose disclosed in natural phenomena to be somewhat different. Not the protection of a favoured race, but the discipline of humanity is what we perceive. Ours is an expansion of the Hebrew faith, revealing the same Divine goodness engaged in a redeeming work of wider scope and longer duration.
The point is still in doubt among us whether the good, the true, the right, are invincible. Those who go forth in the service of God are often borne down by the graceless multitude. From age to age the problem of God’s supremacy seems to remain in suspense, and men are not afraid, in the name of foulest iniquity, to try issues with the best. Be it so. The Divine work is slow. Even the best need discipline that they may have strength, and God is in no haste to carry His argument against atheism. There is abundance of time. Those bent on evil or misled by falsehood, those who are on the wrong side though they consider themselves soldiers of a good cause may gain on many a field, yet their gain will turn out in the long run to be loss, and they who lose and fall are really the victors. There is defeat that is better than success. Other ages than belong to this world’s history are yet to dawn, and the discovery will come to every intelligence that he alone triumphs whose life is spent for righteousness and love, in fidelity to God and man.
3. Let it be allowed that we find the latter canto of Deborah’s song expressive of faith rather than of clear morality, pointing to a spiritual future rather than exhibiting actual knowledge of the Divine character. We hear of the righteous acts of the Lord, and the note is welcome, yet most likely the thought is of retributive justice and punishment that overtakes the enemies of Israel. When the remnant of the nobles and the people come down-that remnant of brave and faithful men never wanting to Israel-the Lord comes down with them, their Guide and Strength. Meroz is cursed because the inhabitants do not go forth to the help of Jehovah. And finally there is glorying over Sisera because he is an enemy of Israel’s Unseen King. There is trust, there is devotion, but no largeness of spiritual view.
We must, however, remember that a song full of the spirit of battle and the gladness of victory cannot be expected to breathe the ideal of religion. The mind of the singer is too excited by the circumstances of the time, the bustle, the triumph, to dwell on higher themes. When fighting has to be done it is the main business of the hour, cannot be aught else to those who are engaged. A woman especially, strung to an unusual pitch of nervous endurance, would be absorbed in the events and her own new and strange position; and she would pass rapidly from the tension of anxiety to a keen passionate exultation in which everything was lost except the sense of deliverance and of personal vindication. When that is past which was an issue of life or death, freedom or destruction, joy rises in a sudden spring, joy in the prowess of men, the fulness of Divine succour; neither the prophetess nor the fighters are indifferent to justice and mercy, though they do not name them here. Deborah, a woman of intense patriotism and piety, dared greatly for God and her country; of a base thing she was incapable. The men who fought by the waters of Megiddo and slew their enemies ruthlessly in the heat of battle knew in the time of peace the duties of humanity and no doubt showed kindness, when the war was over, to the widows and orphans of the slain. To know and serve Jehovah was a guarantee of moral culture in a rude age; and the Israelites when they returned to Him must have contrasted very favourably in respect of conduct with the devotees of Baal and Astarte.
For a parallel case we may turn to Oliver Cromwell. In his letter after the storming of Bristol, a bloody piece of work in which the mettle of the Parliamentary force was put keenly to proof, Cromwell ascribes the victory to God in these terms:-"They that have been employed in this service know that faith and prayer obtained this city for you. God hath put the sword in the Parliament’s hands for the terror of evil doers and the praise of them that do well." Of victory after victory which left many a home desolate he speaks as mercies to be acknowledged with all thankfulness. "God exceedingly abounds in His goodness to us, and will not be weary until righteousness and peace meet, and until He hath brought forth a glorious work for the happiness of this poor kingdom." Read his dispatches and you find that though the man had a generous heart and was a sworn servant of Christ the merciful, yet he breathes no compassion for the royal troops. These are the enemy against whom a pious man is bound to fight; the slaughter of them is a terrible necessity.
Just now it is the fashion to depreciate as much as possible the moral value of the old Hebrew faith. We are assured in a tone of authority that Israel’s Jehovah was only another Chemosh, or, say, a respectable Baal, a being without moral worth, -in fact, a mere name of might worshipped by Israelites as their protector. The history of the people settles this uncritical theory. If the religion of Israel did not sustain a higher morality, if the faith of Jehovah was purely secular, how came Israel to emerge as a nation from the long conflict with Moabites, Canaanaites, Midianites, and Philistines? The Hebrews were not superior in point of numbers, unity, or military skill to the nations whose interest it was to subdue or expel them. Some vantage ground the Israelites must have had. What was it? Justice between man and man, domestic honour, care for human life, a measure of unselfishness, -these at least, as well as the entire purity of their religious rites, were their inheritance; through these the blessing of the Eternal rested upon them. There could never be a return to Him in penitence and hope without a return to the duties and the faith of the sacred covenant. We know therefore that while Deborah sings her song of battle and exults over fallen Sisera there is latent in her mind and the minds of her people a warmth of moral purpose justifying their new liberty. This nation is again a militant church. The hearts of men enlarge that God may dwell in them. Israel’s triumph, shall it not be for the good of those who are overcome? Shall not the people of Jehovah, going forth as the sun in his might, shed a kindly radiance over the lands around? So fine a conception of duty is scarcely to be found in Deborah’s song, but, realised or not in Old Testament times, it was the revelation of God through Israel to the world.
DEBORAH’S SONG: A CHANT OF PATRIOTISM
WE have already considered the song of Deborah as a declaration of God’s working more broad and spiritual than might be looked for in that age. We now regard it as exhibiting different relations of men to the Divine purpose. There is a religious spirit in the whole movement here described. It begins in a revival of faith and obedience, prospers despite the coldness and opposition of many, grows in force and enthusiasm as it proceeds, and finally is crowned with success. The church is militant in a literal sense; yet, fighting with carnal weapons, it is really contending for the glory of the Unseen King. There is a close parallel between the enterprise of Deborah and Barak and that which opens before the church of the present time. No forced accommodation is needed to gather from the song lessons of different kinds for our guidance and warning in the campaign of Christianity.
Here are Deborah herself, a mother in Israel, and the leaders who take their places at the head of the armies of God. Here also are the people willingly offering themselves, imperilling their lives for religion and freedom. The history of the past and the vision of Jehovah as sole Ruler of nature and providence encourage the faithful, who rise out of lethargy and leave the byways of life to take the field in battle array. The levies of Ephraim, Benjamin, Zebulun, Issachar, and Naphtali represent those who are decisively Christian, ready to hazard all for the gospel’s sake. But Reuben sits among the sheepfolds and listens to the pipings for the flocks, Dan remains in ships, Asher at the haven of the sea; and these may stand for the self-cultivating, self-serving professors of religion. Jabin and Sisera again are established opponents of the right cause; they are brave in their own defence; their positions look most formidable, their battalions shake the ground. But the stars from heaven, the floods of Kishon, are only a small part of the forces of the King of heaven; and the soul of Israel marches on in strength till the enemy is routed. Meroz practically helps the foe. Those who dwell within its walls are doubtful of the issue and will not risk their lives; the curse of sullen apostasy falls upon them. Jael is a vivid type of the unscrupulous helpers of a good cause, those who, employing the weapons and methods of the world, would fain be servants of that kingdom in which nothing base, nothing earthly can have place. And there are the children of the hour, the fine ladies of Harosheth whose pleasure and pride are bound up with oppression, who look through the lattices and listen in vain for the returning chariots laden with spoil.
1. The leaders and head men of the tribes under Deborah and Barak, Deborah foremost in the great enterprise, her soul on fire with zeal for Israel and for God.
Deborah and Barak show throughout that spirit of cordial agreement, that frank support of each other which at all times are so much to be desired in religious leaders. There is no jealousy, no striving for preeminence. Barak is a brave man, but he will not stir without the prophetess; he is quite content to give her the place of honour while he does the martial work. Deborah again would commit the task to Barak’s hands in complete reliance on his wisdom and valour; yet she is ready to appear along with him, and in her song, while she claims the prophetic office, it is to Barak she renders the honours of victory-"Lead thy thraldom in thrall, thou son of Abinoam."
Rarely, it must be confessed, is there entire harmony among the leaders of affairs. Jealousy is too often with them from the first. Suspicion lurks under the council table, private ambitions and unworthy fears make confusion when each should trust and encourage another. The fine enthusiasm of a great cause does not overcome as it ought the selfishness of human nature. Moreover, varieties in disposition as between the cautious and the impetuous, the more and the less of sagacity or of faith, a failure in sincerity here, in justice there, are separating influences constantly at work. But when the pressing importance of the duties entrusted to men by God governs every will, these elements of division cease; leaders who differ in temperament are loyal to each other then, each jealous of the other’s honour as servants of truth. In the Reformation, for example, prosperity was largely due to the fact that two such men as Luther and Melanchthon, very different yet thoroughly united, stood side by side in the thick of the conflict, Luther’s impetuosity moderated by the calmer spirit of the other, Melanchthon’s craving for peace kept from dangerous concession by the boldness of his friend. Their mutual love and fidelity showed the nobleness of both, showed also what the Protestant Gospel was. Their differences melted away in enthusiasm for the Word of God, which one thought of as a celestial ambrosia, the other as a sword, a war, a destruction springing upon the children of Ephraim like a lioness in the forest. The Divine work was the life of each; each in his own way sought with splendid earnestness to forward the truth of Christ.
Church leaders are responsible for not a little which they themselves condemn. Differences do not quickly arise among disciples when the teachers are modest, honourable, and brotherly. Paul cries, "Is Christ divided? Were ye baptised into the name of Paul? What is Apollos? What is Paul? Ministers by whom ye believed." When our leaders speak and feel in like manner there will be peace, not uniformity but something better. God’s husbandry, God’s building will prosper.
But it is declared to be jealousy for religion that divides-jealousy for the pure doctrine of Christ-jealousy for the true church. We try to believe it. But then why are not all in that spirit of holy jealousy found side by side as comrades, eagerly yet in cordial brotherhood discussing points of difference, determined that they will search together and help each other until they find principles in which they can all rest? The leaders of different Christian bodies do not appear like Deborah and Barak engaged in a common enterprise, but as chiefs of rival or even opposing armies. The reason is that in this church and the other there has been a foreclosing of questions, and the elected leaders are almost all men who are pledged to the tribal decrees. In the decisions of councils and synods, and not less in the deliverances of learned doctors apologising each for his own sect and marking out the path his party must travel, there has been ever since the days of the apostles a hardening and limiting of opinion. Thought has been prematurely crystallised and each church prides itself on its own special deposit. The true church leader should understand that a course which may have been inevitable in the past is not the virtue of today and that those are simply adhering to an antiquated position who affirm one church to be the sole possessor of truth, the only centre of authority. It may seem strange to advise the churches to reconsider many of the ideas built into creed and constitution and to reject all leaders who are such by credit of sitting immovable in the seats of the rabbis, but the progress of Christianity in power and assurance waits upon a new brotherliness which will bring about a new catholicity. Under guides of the right kind the churches will have qualities and distinctions as heretofore, each will be a rendezvous for spirits of a certain order, but frankly confessing each other’s right and honour they will press on abreast to scale and possess the uplands of truth.
To be sure something is said of tolerance. But that is a purely political idea. Let it not be so much as named in the assembly of God’s people. Does Barak tolerate Deborah? Does Moses tolerate Aaron? Does St. Peter tolerate St. Paul? The disciples of Christ tolerate each other, do they? What marvellous largeness of soul! One or two, it appears, have been made sole keepers of the ark, but are prepared to tolerate the embarrassing help of well meaning auxiliaries. Neither charity of that sort nor flabbiness of belief is asked. Let each be strongly persuaded in his own mind of that which he has learned from Christ. But where Christ has not foreclosed inquiry, and where sincere and thoughtful believers differ, there is no place for what is called tolerance; the demand is for brotherly fellowship in thought and labour.
Deborah was a mother in Israel, a nursing mother of the people in their spiritual childhood, with a mother’s warm heart for the oppressed and weary flock. The nation needed a new birth, and that, by the grace of God, Deborah gave it in the sore travail of her soul. For many a year she suffered, prayed, and entreated. Israel had chosen new gods and in serving them was dying to righteousness, dying to Jehovah. Deborah had to pour her own life into the half dead, and compared to this effort the battle with the Canaanites was but a secondary matter. So is it always. The Divine task is that of the mother-like souls that labour for the quickening of faith and holy service. Great victories of Christian valour, patience, and love are never won without that renewal of humanity; and everything is due to those who have guided the ignorant into knowledge, the careless to thought, and the weak to strength through years of patient toil. They are not all prophets, not all known to the tribes: of many such the record waits, hidden with their God, until the day of revealing and rejoicing.
Yet Barak also, the Lightning Chief, has honourable part. When the men are collected, men newborn into life, he can lead them. They are Ironsides under him. He rushes down from Tabor and they at his feet with a vigour nothing can resist. If we have Deborah we shall also have Barak, his army and his victory. The promise is not for women only but for all in the private ways and obscure settlements of life who labour at the making of men. Every Christian has the responsibility and joy of helping to prepare a way for the coming of Jehovah in some great outburst of faith and righteousness.
2. We contrast next the people who offered themselves willingly, who "jeoparded their lives unto the death upon the high places of the field," and those who for one reason or another held aloof.
With united leaders there is a measure of unity among the tribes. Barak and Deborah summon all who are ready to strike for liberty, and there is a great muster. Yet there might be double the number. Those who refuse to take arms have many pretexts, but the real cause is want of heart. The oppression of Jabin does not much affect some Israelites, and so far as it does they would rather go on paying tribute than risk their lives, rather bear the ills they have than hazard anything in joining Barak. These holding back, the work has to be done by a comparatively small number, a remnant of the nobles and the people.
But a remnant is always found; there are men and women who do not bow the knee to the Baal of worldly fashion, who do not content their souls amid the fleshpots of low servitude. They have to venture and sacrifice much in a long and varying war, and oftentimes their flesh and heart may almost fail. But a great reward is theirs. While others are spiritless and hopeless, they know the zest of life, its real power and joy. They know what believing means, how strong it makes the soul. Their all is in the spiritual kingdom which cannot be moved. God is the portion of their souls, their gladness and glory. Those who stand by and look on while the conflict rages may share to a certain extent in the liberty that is won, for the gains of Christian warfare are not limited, they are for all mankind. There is a wider and better ordered life for all when this evil custom and that have been overcome, when one Jabin after another ceases to oppress. Yet what is it after all to touch the border of Christian liberty? To the fighters belongs the inheritance itself, an ever-extending conquest, a land of olives and vineyards and streams of living water.
Different tribes are named that sent contingents to the army of Barak. They are typical of different churches, different orders of society that are forward in the campaign of faith. The Hebrews who came most readily at the battle call appear to have belonged to districts where the Canaanite oppression was heavy, the country that lay between Harosheth, the headquarters of Sisera, and Hazor the city of Jabin. So in the Christian struggle of the ages the strenuous part falls to those who suffer from the tyranny of the temporal and see clearly the hopelessness of life without religion. The gospel of Christ is peculiarly precious to men and women whose lot is hard, whose earthly future is clouded. Sacrifices for God’s cause are made as a rule by these. In His great purpose, in His deep knowledge of the facts of life, our Lord joined Himself to the poor and left with them a special blessing. It is not that men who dwell in comfort are independent of the gospel, but they are tempted to think themselves so. In proportion as they are fenced in amongst possessions and social claims they are apt, though devout, to miss that very call which is the message of the gospel to them. Well meaning but absorbed, they can rarely bestir themselves to hear and do until some personal calamity or public disaster awakens them to the truth of things. The steady support of Christian ordinances and work in our day is largely the honour of people who have their full share in the struggle for earthly necessaries or a humble standing in the ranks of the independent. The paradox is real and striking; it claims the attention of those who vainly dream that a comfortable society would certainly become Christian, as effect follows cause. While the religion of Christ makes for justice and temporal well being, blessing even the unbeliever, while it leads the way to a high standard of social order, these things remain of no value in themselves to men unspiritual: it holds true that man can never live by bread alone, but by the words which proceed out of the mouth of God. And there are forces at work among us on behalf of the Divine counsel that shall not fail to maintain the struggle necessary to the discipline and growth of souls.
The real army of faith is largely drawn from the ranks of the toilers and the heavy laden. Yet not entirely. We reckon many and fine exceptions. There are rich who are less worldly than those who have little. Many whose lot lies far from the shadow of tyranny in green and pleasant valleys are first to hear and quickest to answer every call from the Captain of the Lord’s host. Their possessions are nothing to them. In the spiritual battle all is spent, knowledge, influence, wealth, life. And if you look for the highest examples of Christianity, a faith pure, keen, and lovely, a generosity that most clearly reveals the Master, a passion for truth consuming all lower regards, you will find them where culture has done its best for the mind and the bounty of providence has kindled a gracious humility and an abounding gentleness of heart. The tawdry vanities of their fellows in rank and wealth seem what they are to these, the gaudy toys of children who have not yet seen the glory and the goal of life. And how can men and women hear the clarion of the Christian war ringing over the valleys of degradation and fear, see the Divine contest surging through the land, and not perceive that here and here only is life? Men play at statecraft and grow cold as they intrigue; they play at financing and become ciphers in a monstrous sum; they toil at pleasure till Satan himself might pity them, for at least he has a purpose to serve. All the while there is offered to them the vigour, the buoyancy, the glow of an ambition and a service in which no spirit tires and no heart withers. Passing strange it is that so few noble, so few mighty, so few wise hear the keen cry from the cross as one of life and power.
Among the tribes that held aloof from the great conflict several are specially named. Messengers have gone to the land of Reuben beyond Jordan, and carried the fiery cross through Bashan. Dan has been summoned and Asher from the haven of the sea. But these have not responded. Reuben indeed has searchings of heart. Some of the people remember the old promise made at Shittim in the plain of Moab, that they would help their brethren who crossed into Canaan, never refusing assistance till the land was fully possessed. Moses had solemnly charged them with that duty, and they had bound themselves in covenant: "As the Lord hath said unto thy servants, so will we do." Could anything have been more seriously, more decisively undertaken? Yet, when this hour of need came, though the duty lay upon the conscience nothing was done. Along the watercourses of Gilead and Bashan there were flocks to tend, to protect from the Amalekites and Midianites of the desert, who would be sure to make a raid in the absence of the fighting men. To Asher and Dan the reference is perhaps somewhat ironical. The "ships" for trade, the "haven of the sea," were never much to these tribes, and their maritime ambition made an unworthy excuse. They had perhaps a little fishing, some small trade on the coast, and petty as the gain was it filled their hearts. Asher "abode by his creeks." It is not to a religious festival that Deborah and Barak have called the tribes. It is to serious and dangerous duty. Yet the call of duty should come with more power than any invitation even to spiritual enjoyment. The great religious gathering has its use, its charm. We know the attraction of the crowded convocation in which Christian hope and enthusiasm are rekindled by stirring words and striking instances, faith rising high as it views the wide mission of gospel truth and hears from eloquent lips the story of a modern day of Pentecost. To many, because their own spiritual life burns dull, the daily and weekly routine of things becomes empty, vain, unsatisfying. In the common round even of valued religious exercise the heat and promise of Christianity seem to be lacking. In the convention they appear to be realised as nowhere else, and the persuasion that God may be felt there in a special manner is laying hold of Christian people. They are right in their eager desire to be borne along with the flood of redeeming grace, but we have need to ask what the life of faith is, how it is best nourished. To have a personal share in God’s controversy with evil, to have a place however obscure in the actual struggle of truth with falsehood, -this alone gives confidence in the result and power in believing. Those who are in contact with spiritual reality because they have their own testimony to bear, their own watch to keep at some outpost, find stimulus in the urgency of duty and exultation in the consciousness of service. Men often seek in public gatherings what they can only find in the private ways of effort and endurance; they seek the joy of harvest when they should be at the labour of sowing; they would fain be cheered by the song of victory when they should be roused by the trumpet of battle. And the result is that where spiritual work waits to be done there are but few to do it. Examine the state of any Christian church, reckon up those who are deeply interested in its efficiency, who make sacrifices of time and means, and set against these the half-hearted, who ignobly accept the religious provision made for them and perhaps complain that it is not so good as they would like, that progress is not so rapid as they think it might be, -the one class far outnumbers the other. As in Israel twice or three times as many might have responded to Barak’s call, so in every church the resolute, the energetic, and devoted are few compared with those who are capable of energy and devotion. It is sometimes maintained that the worship of goodness and the Christian ideal command the minds of men more today than ever they did, and proof seems ready to hand. But, after all, is it not religious taste rather than reverence that grows? Self-culture leads many to a certain admiration of Christ and a form of discipleship. Christian worship is enjoyed and Christian philanthropy also, but when the spiritual freedom of mankind calls for some effort of the soul and life, we see what religion means-a wave of the hand instead of enthusiasm, a guinea subscription instead of thoughtful service. Is it a Christian or a selfish culture which is content with fragmentary concessions and complacent patronage where the claims of social "inferiors" are concerned? That there is a wide diffusion of religious feeling is clear enough; but in many respects it is mere dilettantism.
Notice the history of the tribes that lag behind in the day of the Lord’s summons. What do we hear of Reuben after this? "Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel." Along with Gad Reuben possessed a splendid country, but these two faded away into a sort of barbarism, scarcely maintaining their separateness from the wild races of the desert. Asher in like manner suffered from the contact with Phoenicia and lost touch with the more faithful tribes. So it is always. Those who shirk religious duty lose the strength and dignity of religion. Though greatly favoured in place and gifts they fall into that spiritual impotence which means defeat and extinction.
"Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the Lord, curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof; because they came not to the help of the Lord against the mighty." It is a stern judgment upon those whose active assistance was, humanly speaking, necessary in the day of battle. The men only held back, held back in doubt, supposing that it was vain for Hebrews to fling themselves against the iron chariots of Sisera. Were they not prudent, looking at the matter all round? Why should a curse so heavy be pronounced on men who only sought to save their lives? The reply is that secular history curses such men, those of Sparta for example to whom Athens sent in vain when the battle of Marathon was impending; and further that Christ his declared the truth which is for all time, "Whosoever will save his life shall lose it." Erasmus was a wise man; yet he made the great blunder. He saw clearly the errors of Romanism and the miserable bondage in which it kept the souls of men, and if he had joined the reformers his judgment and learning would have become part of the world’s progressive life. But he held back doubting, criticising, a friend to the Reformation but not an apostle of it. Admire as we may the wit, the reasoner, the philosopher, there must always be severe judgment of one who, professing to love truth, declared that he had no inclination to die for it. There are many who, without the intellect of Erasmus, would fain be thought catholic in his company. Large is the family of Meroz, and little thought have they of any ban lying upon them. Is it a fanciful danger, a mere error of opinion without any peril in it, to which we point here? People think so; young men especially think so and drift on until the day of service is past and they find themselves under the contempt of man and the judgment of Christ. "Lord, when saw we Thee a stranger or in prison and did not minister unto Thee?" "Depart from Me, I never knew you."
3. Jael, a type of the unscrupulous helpers of a good cause.
Long has the error prevailed that religion can be helped by using the world’s weapons, by acting in the temper and spirit of the world. Of that mischievous falsehood have been born all the pride and vainglory, the rivalries and persecutions that darken the past of Christendom, surviving in strange and pitiful forms to the present day. If we shudder at the treachery in the deed of Jael, what shall we say of that which through many a year sent victims to inquisition dungeons and to the stake in the name of Christ? And what shall we say now of that moral assassination which in one tent and another is thought no sin against humanity, but a service of God? Among us are too many who suffer wounds keen and festering that have been given in the house of their friends, yea, in the name of the one Lord and Master. The battle of truth is a frank and honourable fight, served at no point by what is false or proud or low. To an enemy a Christian should be chivalrous, and surely no less to a brother. Granting that a man is in error, he needs a physician, not an executioner; he needs an example, not a dagger. How much farther do we get by the methods of opprobrium and cruelty, the innuendo and the whisper of suspicion? Besides, it is not the Siseras today who are dealt with after this manner. It is the "schismatic" within the camp on whom some Jael falls with a hammer and a nail. If a church cannot stand by itself, approved to the consciences of men, it certainly will not be helped by a return to the temper of barbarism and the craft of the world. "The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the casting down of strongholds."