Great Texts of the Bible
Halting between Two Opinions
And Elijah came near unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word.—1 Kings 18:21.
1. This scene is one of the most memorable and striking in history. It represents one of those great culminating points when life suddenly becomes dramatic, when, as it were, the confused groups of men and women on the stage of life suddenly shift themselves into place and position, and the curtain rises on the acts of a great tragedy. Such culminations occur also in the individual life, when the still river of our days deepens, and rushes on in loud thunder, and all our scattered energies become concentrated in one vast struggle. In such moments life is felt to be infinitely significant, and we know that it fulfils itself in the open eye of the angel-crowded heavens. In such moments the character of coming centuries is determined, and individual destiny is sealed and fixed.
2. From the challenge of Elijah to the falling of the fire from heaven, the interest grows and the excitement deepens. It was one of the most memorable national convocations ever held in Israel. Old men were there, and they could not remember such a bitter time in the nation’s history. For years no rain had fallen at the appointed seasons, and the land was literally burnt up with the drought. By famine and hunger God had appealed to the conscience of the nation, and the appeal had apparently been in vain. They had not risen up in wrath and repentance to cast the new and false religion out of the land. Fear of the king and queen and priest had deterred them. Fashion ruled them even in their misery. Lack of conviction, mental and spiritual instability, had been their undoing. Since the cruel famine began, Elijah had been in hiding, and there had been no decisive voice ringing out clearly for Jehovah and His cause. Now he has come forth from his retirement. It is at his instance that this assembly has been convened; and by his lips, and by the manifestation of His own might, Jehovah is about to make His final appeal to them. They would see such a sight that day as would, for a time, drive all hesitation out of their hearts, and force from each one of them, in the face of Ahab and the masterful priests of Baal, the confession, “The Lord, he is the God.”
3. How the pulse quickens as we read the story! In his splendid isolation stands Elijah against king, court, and nation. For three years he has been a hunted fugitive; for three years Jezebel has enjoyed her wicked triumph; but this one man is unsubdued and unsubduable. At last he comes forth from his desert, and he comes like a thunderbolt. He bars the way of the king’s chariot with a gesture, and silences him with one stern accusation: “Thou and thy father’s house have made Israel to sin!” Never was the fearlessness of right so splendidly illustrated, or the impotence of evil so conclusively exposed. The hunter is dumb before his prey; the tyrant quails before his victim. There is a royalty in righteousness before which all other royalty is but tinsel; there is a supremacy in goodness which strikes the wicked dumb. Are you armed with that supremacy? Dare you stand fearless in the right though the heavens fall? Only then is man invulnerable. No one can defeat a man who is in the right. He may be a wild man of the desert and stand in tattered garb, but the chariots of wrong stop at his signal, and kings fear his face. When Elijah says, “Gather to me all Israel unto Mount Carmel,” Ahab knows he must obey. So to Carmel Israel is gathered; there the broken altars are rebuilt, and there the pregnant question of the text is put to the vast multitude, who at last, when the fire of God descends, cry in fearful acquiescence not less than profound conviction, “The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God.”
4. We have in this story of Elijah the record of the actual struggle which went on in Israel for at least fifty years between monotheism and idolatry, between puritanism and immorality, between the individual conscience and a despotism, between nationalism and foreign influences. Politically, socially, morally, and religiously Elijah represented and concentrated this struggle. No figure can be more grand than he, standing there alone, above the wild dance and crying of the priests of Baal! All the desert majesty is upon his face; all the glory of the great conception of one God, of one righteousness, is shining in his eyes; all the power of that thought, and of being the servant of its law, speaks in his iron attitude, even in his scornful speech—one against the world, and in mortal danger. There are few who have the steady inward power to take and keep that post. It needs courage, not only physical, but moral; it needs determined will; it needs intense conviction of the right of that for which the stand is made; it needs to have lived a blameless life. All these things belonged to Elijah, and their power in him made him majestic. Every soul that saw him that day, erect upon the rock, felt the strength and awe of his solitude and solitary faith in God flow like a river from him into their hearts. Every soul felt the baseness, in comparison with his stern manhood, of the court of Ahab; the noble contrast between his life and the luxury of the city, the indifference of the people, the world, the flesh, and the devil. Every one knew that there was in him something higher than earthly power; that the soul of man was here greater than the whole world. Each man, as the long hours of the day drew on, looked, knew that God was there, and said within his heart—
“The Lord sat as king at the Flood;
Yea, the Lord sitteth as king for ever.”
5. It was not only human courage, will, and goodness that gave Elijah majesty. It was his faith in God. The man was possessed with God; behind him stood One whom none might see, but from whom streamed into His servant a spiritual might and inspiration. Elijah felt it; he knew that God had seized him, and he held to that faith with an intensity which made the man seem transfigured. This was the deep root of his courage, of his resolute will, of his scorn of all that men could do unto him, of the certainty which made him mock his foes, and call on all the folk of Israel to watch the falling of the fire before it fell. This, too, was the root of his calm; all the day long, he waited, “like Teneriffe or Atlas, unremoved”; silent till the end; wrapt in his mantle, wrapt in faith; at peace in the midst of turbulence. Yet within him, born too of faith in God and hatred of oppression, of fierce contempt of evil, and love of his mighty thought that God was one and undivided, there was also that without which nothing great in morals, nothing sublime in spiritual life is ever wrought—passion at white heat; not bursting like that of the priests of Baal into wild cries, fanatic self-torture, and maddened dancing, but self-restrained and ruled, cool at its centre, mastered by will, inspired by a cause which in its origin was not his own, exalted by an idea the source of which was beyond himself in God.
6. We see Elijah stand here, in his full strength, on Carmel, at a great crisis in the fate of Israel. To that crisis he was equal; nay, in it he stood the first. By might of character he was then the monarch of all Israel; by the same might he swept into agreement with himself all the wavering, all the indifferent, all the worldly-minded. Against him stood the court, the weak king, the cruel and masculine queen, the whole body of the priesthood of Baal, the whole of the foreign and idolatrous tribe that had invaded the religion of Jehovah. That religion was often fierce and ruthless, but it was not foul. It held to two great principles of the deepest importance for the progress of the world. It held to the unity of God, and to justice and purity as the necessities for His worship. Both these principles were traversed by the worship of Baal and Astarte. On one side, then, was the crowd and the court, on the other only one man. But, lonely as he was, so great was his thought, and so grand his character, that Ahab trembled in his palace when he thought of Elijah, and Jezebel heard at night his voice, crying aloud her doom.
And were it wisely done
If we who cannot gaze above, should walk the earth alone?
If we whose virtue is so weak, should have a will so strong,
And stand blind on the rocks to choose the right path from the wrong?
To choose, perhaps, a love-lit hearth instead of love and heaven,
A single rose for a rose-tree which beareth seven times seven?
Until in grieving for the worst, we learn what is the best?
Dear God, and must we see
All blissful things depart from us or ere we go to Thee?
We cannot guess Thee in the wood, or hear Thee in the wind;
Our cedars fall around us ere we see the light behind.
Ay, sooth, we feel too strong, in weal, to need Thee on the road,
But woe being come, the soul is dumb that crieth not on God!
7. It was the battlefield of two religions, and Elijah concentrated the struggle in the first words that fell from his lips, words marked as much by his stormy contempt as by his religious passion; words that carry their impassioned appeal to us: “How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him.”
For mankind are one in spirit, and an instinct bears along,
Round the earth’s electric circle, the swift flash of right or wrong;
Whether conscious or unconscious, yet Humanity’s vast frame
Through its ocean-sundered fibres feels the gush of joy or shame;—
In the gain or loss of one race all the rest have equal gain.
Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,
Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right,
And the choice goes by for ever ’twixt that darkness and that light.
Hast thou chosen, O my people, on whose party thou shalt stand,
Ere the Doom from its worn sandals shakes the dust against our land?
Though the cause of Evil prosper, yet ’tis Truth alone is strong,
And, albeit she wander outcast now, I see around her throng
Troops of beautiful, tall angels, to enshield her from all wrong.1 [Note: James Russell Lowell, The Present Crisis.]
Jehovah or Baal
i. The Decision
Elijah called the people to decide between two Gods—Jehovah and Baal. This decision has to be made in every age. Now Baal, the male, and Ashtaroth, the female, represented the fertilizing and productive principle in nature, and their worship was that of power. To the more cultivated and refined, it was simply a species of pantheism; to the multitude, it was what one has called “the worship of deified abundance, under a splendid and sensuous ceremonial”; or, as Maurice has put it, “The worship of Baal was the worship of power as distinguished from righteousness.” But we are less concerned with what Baal stood for to the Israelites than with what “the God of this world” means to ourselves.
1. The God of this world. The God of this world takes various forms.
(1) Here is one form. We do not cast him into the form of a graven, or a molten, image; we may not set him up in the “plains of Dura, in the province of Babylon,” but we set him up in London, at the Stock Exchange. We have little images of him in our own houses, and we worship him with the “sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of music,” and we call him Money! We are great at the worship of Mammon. People never seem tired of burning incense to wealth. To-day, a man may be so despicable a creature that we would not demean ourselves by touching him with the extreme tip of our little finger. He suddenly becomes heir to ten thousand a year, and to-morrow we are only too glad to get into our carriage and call upon him. What has made the difference? He has become a successful “worshipper of the golden image,” and we, as other high priests of this idolatry, are bound to fraternize with this excellent person! Who is he? “The God of this World.” The Baal of our day!
(2) Here is another “God of this world”; we set him up on a lofty tower of ivory, or we put him into one of our superb equipages, and roll him through the street, with a four-in-hand, and we call him Rank! And everybody bows down and worships this God, as he passes along. Look at him there, as he goes along in all his splendour, and the votaries of this world bow down with profound obeisance, and do him honour!
(3) Here is another “God of this world”! We deck him with all kinds of silks, satins, and load him with jewellery, and we call him Fashion. We put him in our drawing-rooms; our roués are skilful in his worship, and women are specially devoted to him. If he makes us ridiculous it is no matter. Any kind of eccentricity is pardoned, even though our own tastes condemn us for the form our worship assumes, though our own reason may rise up against it, and we may sometimes say, as we look into our glass, “What a ridiculous, empty-headed, wax doll I have made of myself!” Yet in the very same moment we none the less eagerly offer our incense to the worship of the God that we have made.
(4) Here is another God. We beat drums, and we blow trumpets; we deck him in scarlet regimentals; and we write the name Ambition upon his brow, and fall down and worship him. What deity so great as this God? We honour him supremely; we are never tired of speaking about him; poets write of him; and philosophers go out of their way to make themselves ridiculous about him; even ministers of the gospel of peace can become eloquent in sounding forth the praises of what they are pleased to call “glory.”
(5) Or it may be we call him Pleasure. He puts on the fool’s mask, and wherever he goes eager crowd? of admirers follow him. “There goes the God of this world.” “Have you heard So-and-so? Go and hear him: why, you would die of laughing!” As though it were worthy of the dignity of humanity to lay itself out for levity; as though we were not frivolous enough by nature, but must needs pay our fellow-travellers on the broad road to make us more frivolous than we were before!1 [Note: Canon Hay Aitken.]
Very powerfully has Watts embodied his idea of Mammon as the god of this world, in that telling picture which exhibits him to us as a king, sitting on a scarlet throne ornamented at the top with two skulls. His head, Midas-like, is encircled with a crown fashioned of a broad band of gold—with round golden coins standing up from it in imitation of the balls or strawberry leaves of a coronet. There is something indescribably mean and repulsive in his face, with square massive jaws—sordid, selfish mouth—flat nose, and bleared dead-blue eyes, full of cunning and deceit and all hardness, rising above a neck that wrinkles into gross folds like the skin of a rhinoceros. On each side above his head his hair rises up like a pair of asinine ears; and he is clothed with a gold tunic embroidered with patterns taken from the pursuits of wealth. One hand is grovelling among the money bags in his lap, and the other grasps the long tresses of a beautiful woman who has sold herself for gain, and whose green robe of freshness falls away from her. His foot, covered with blood-red hose, rests on the body of a naked youth who has been a devoted slave, and has been stamped into the mire by his bondage. In the background of the picture a crimson curtain falls down concealing the distant view, but disclosing immediately underneath it a smoking fire, emblematic of the fiery danger to which the lust of wealth exposes the soul that cherishes it. The commercial world is only too full of illustrations of the destructive flame which this spark of inward fire kindles, for no one can be covetous at heart without his covetousness finding outward expression in his life.1 [Note: Hugh Macmillan, George Frederick Watts, 194.]
2. Our choice is between the God of this world and Him who is called “the God and Father of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” Why should we choose the latter?
(1) He is one.—Suppose that we worshipped a plurality of gods, as the heathen nations do and ever have done; then we have at once a divided duty: one man chooses this god as his patron and makes his vows and prayers to him, and another man chooses that god, according to the fancy or caprice of the worshipper. In the midst of a multitude of gods, as here supposed, a person would be situated almost as he is amongst his fellow-men; he owes a duty to this man, and a duty to that; there is every kind and degree of human duty, there is that of son to father and father to son, of husband to wife and wife to husband, of servant to master and master to servant; and besides all such definite duties, there is the universal duty of love and benevolence, which binds each member of the human family to all the rest; but there is no one person amongst men, of whom we can assert that we owe to him a duty or allegiance paramount to all other considerations. God is but one, and because He is one, duty to Him is different from all other duties; and in reminding the Israelites of their duty towards God, Moses took in reality the deepest and most philosophical ground when he used these words, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.”
The Sin of all Sins, or the Heresy of all Heresies, is a Worldly Spirit. We are apt to consider this Temper only as an Infirmity, or pardonable Failure; but it is indeed the great Apostasy from God and the Divine Life. It is not a Single Sin, but the whole Nature of all Sin. Every Sin, be it of what kind it will, is only a Branch of the worldly Spirit that lives in us. “There is but one that is good,” saith our Lord, “and that is God.” In the same Strictness of Expression it must be said, that there is but one Life that is good, and that is the Life of God and Heaven. Depart in the least Degree from the Goodness of God, and you depart into Evil; because nothing is good but His goodness.1 [Note: William Law.]
(2) He is a support in time of trouble.—What do we expect in a God? We expect that our God should be one who, in consequence of the relation of amity established between ourselves and Him, will be ready to stand up for us, to take hold of our hand, and lead us along the way of life, to support us in our trouble, animate us with hope in the dark passages of our experience, give us courage when foes are pressing on our heart, and comfort when the scalding tear is trickling down the cheek! Is not that what we would expect of a God? Do we not naturally look for something of this kind in a God? Can we believe in a God who is of no practical use, or help—who has no real sympathy with those who worship Him?
He doth give His joy to all:
He becomes an infant small,
He becomes a man of woe,
He doth feel the sorrow too.
Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,
And thy Maker is not by:
Think not thou canst weep a tear,
And thy Maker is not near.
Oh, He gives to us His joy,
That our grief He may destroy:
Till our grief is fled and gone
He doth sit by us and moan.1 [Note: William Blake.]
(3) He is an uplift to moral character.—Again, what do we expect in a God? We expect that all the intercourse that we have with Him shall have a tendency to elevate our moral character. We expect that the more we know of Him, the more we shall become like His own glorious nature. We expect that there will be roused within us such an enthusiasm towards Him, that, drawn on as by an irresistible attraction, and following wherever He leads, enduring any hardship He may appoint, we shall wake up in His likeness, and gain that glorious ideal of moral perfectness, after which He has Himself bidden us to aspire. Is not that what we expect in a God? Can we expect less?
Baal or Jehovah—it is often the choice between purity and sensuality. It was the sensual pollutions of Baal that awoke the most terrible denunciations of the Hebrew prophets, and sensuality is one of the first results of a life which has lost righteousness of thought. Do not mistake me. I do not say that impurity is the certain or inevitable result of loss of faith; but I do say that the man who loses righteousness of thought at least challenges the demon of sensuality to enter in and possess him. Shall I draw a modern sketch of what this aspect of Baalism means? It is a task I would thankfully evade, but it is a duty from which the minister of Christ dare not be recreant. It is a story with which every student of modern life is only too familiar, and it is written on a thousand broken hearts and miserable lives. Here is a youth reared in the ordered quiet of some country home, familiar with its domestic sanctities, its household affections and pieties. At length he leaves the home where the fragrance of prayer and love has sweetened daily life, and enters the great city; and then the spell of Baal begins to fall on him. He hears in the office, the warehouse, stories at which he blushes, but which he will soon learn eagerly to devour without blushing. The moral sensitiveness becomes deadened, and the influence of comradeship begins to tell. Through the ear-gate the enemy enters in, and soon the citadel is captured. One by one his small habitual pieties disappear; the Testament his mother gave him lies unused; the habit of prayer is dropped, for perhaps he shares a room with one who does not pray; and how difficult it is to pray then I know full well, for I have had to do it. In a few weeks the work is done; the boy’s pure imagination is polluted, the boy’s blood begins to riot with unholy impulses, and on the inward ear there falls more clearly and resistlessly every hour the delirious whispers and suggestions of impure seduction. He begins to think it manly to be cynical, and clever to talk of women in such a way that if his mother heard him she might wish that she had never borne him. And if the evil goes no further, can any say how great the havoc that is wrought?1 [Note: W. J. Dawson.]
You have heard the story of Frankenstein: how a great chemist strives to make a man, and builds the physical frame up bone by bone, and sinew by sinew, and at last finds some occult means whereby he breathes into him the spirit of life, and the monster moves and lives. He is its creator; and from that hour the thing which he has made haunts him, dogs him, will not let him rest, is a walking terror he cannot evade, a hideous presence from which he cannot flee. So he who raises the devil of impure delight raises a devil very difficult to lay. It enters in, and brings with it seven other devils worse than itself. It quenches conscience, it masters the will, it destroys too often intellectual pleasures, it robs the mind of peace, and visits the body with loathsome suffering, till of a man made in God’s image it leaves something worse than a beast: and it makes the body, which should be the temple of the Holy Ghost, the mere agent and minister of infamous delights. Purity: it is embodied in an Elijah whose thoughts are full of God, whose
Strength is as the strength of ten,
Because his heart is pure.
Sensuality: it is embodied in a Jezebel who has given her name to all bad women, and an Ahab who forgets the duties of kingship in her guilty fascinations.2 [Note: Ibid.]
(4) He is a Redeemer from sin.—With those who know the new relation in which the human family stands to its Creator through the redemption wrought for us by Jesus Christ, the argument for entire homage and obedience, which depends upon the fact of our being a redeemed people, is perhaps the strongest that can be brought. He who knows that God so loved him that He sent His Son into the world that men might live and not die, and who does not acknowledge that on this ground alone he is bound to consider himself as not his own but bought with a price, and under obligation to yield up all his powers to Him who redeemed him, cannot very easily be persuaded by any other argument, that he is bound to love and fear God with all his heart and mind and soul and strength.
ii. The Difficulty of the Decision
What makes the decision difficult?
1. It does not seem so easy now as in some former times, to discern what is the good and what is the evil cause. For Homer’s hero the one true omen, the one Divine direction, was to fight for the fatherland. To the Athenian, the cause of his city was the cause of his god; and it was not till the time of Socrates that the thought of some wider conflicting duty dawned upon him. And so for Deborah and Elijah, the God of Israel was the Lord of Hosts, and neither the one nor the other had the slightest hesitation in dooming the Syrian General, Sisera, or the priests of Baal, to death. One clear but narrow rule seemed to point out the path of right; and he who fell short of it, who “came not to the help of the Lord against the mighty,” could not pretend that he was actuated by any motive but unwillingness to do his duty. And when Saul spared even the cattle of the Amalekites, and pled that he spared them to make a greater sacrifice to God, he met at once the stern reproof of the prophet Samuel: “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.”
2. The general widening of our moral and intellectual horizon has made this simple way of opposing good and evil impossible to us. Christianity itself has taught us to sympathize with men of all classes and nations, to see the same humanity manifesting itself in them all; and this sympathy and insight will not let us regard our national foes as essentially the servants of an evil principle. We cannot echo the blessing pronounced by Deborah on the treacherous act of Jael, or regard the slaughter of Baal’s priests as a just measure for the propagation of true religion. We have learned to recognize in all religions at least a partial expression of that reverence for a Divine Power which concentrates human life, and binds men together in families and nations. Modern ideas of evolution have taught us to regard the great controversies and wars which have taken place in the past between different parties, different races, different religions, as rarely, if ever, a pure conflict between good and evil, but rather, in many cases, as issues in which important interests of humanity were maintained on both sides; so that it would have been a calamity if either side had been absolutely victorious over the other. And the more we discover this in regard to the past, the more we are led to ask ourselves whether it is not also the case with many of the issues most hotly contested in the present day. Such thoughts are, so to speak, in the air, and even those who are not directly conscious of them, are indirectly influenced by them, and are led to regard the exclusive spirit which sees good only in one cause or object, as bigoted and irrational.
3. But there is a dark side to all this: for just those wider views of things which produce tolerance are apt to produce also a sceptical spirit, which weakens the springs of manly energy. We are not able to split life in two with a hatchet as our fathers did, or to see all white on one side, and all black on the other; and therefore we are apt to lose the consciousness that there is a real battle between good and evil going on in the world, and find it hard to realize that we are called to take up arms on one side or the other. The complexity of life, the difficulty of seeing our way clearly, the constant discussion which tends to awaken doubt as to every course that can be taken, and the fact that good men are ranged on both sides in almost every controversy—all these things seem to offer excuses to the man who shrinks from the decisive choice that would make him the servant of any one cause or principle, and who prefers, in the old phrase, “to cultivate his garden,” that is, to devote his main energies to looking after his own interests, and in other things to drift with the current that is strongest.
When you find it difficult to come to a decision, said he, take a sheet of white paper and divide it into two columns. Write in one of these columns all the reasons you have for acting and in the other all the reasons you have for abstaining. As in algebra we cancel similar quantities, strike out the reasons that balance one another, and decide according to the reasons that remain.
This method is not suited to Serenus, and he never employs it. Serenus would exhaust all the papyrus and all the waxen tablets in the world, he would use up all the reeds of the Nile, and his steel stylus as well, before he would have exhausted the reasons that his subtle intellect would suggest to him, and, finally, he would not decide that any one of them was better or worse than the other.
Is it necessary then to act? Beyond question it is.1 [Note: Anatole France, On Life and Letters, 12.]
When once a decision is reached and execution is the order of the day, dismiss absolutely all responsibility and care about the outcome. Unclamp, in a word, your intellectual and practical machinery, and let it run free; and the service it will do you will be twice as good.2 [Note: William James.]
If I lay waste, and wither up with doubt
The blessed fields of Heaven where once my faith
Possessed itself serenely safe from death;
If I deny the things past finding out;
Or if I orphan my own soul of One
That seemed a Father, and make void the place
Within me where He dwelt in power and grace,
What do I gain by that I have undone?3 [Note: William Dean Howells.]
4. There is, further, the moral difficulty of taking the unpopular side. The God of this world is custom, and has therefore the majority with him; the followers of the true God are a remnant. In every age there is a remnant, a holy seed, who defy the custom of the world, and cleave to God. It is the remnant, the ten righteous men, the aristocracy of virtue, who save a nation and redeem a time; and they do so in defiance of the many, who cheerfully go to their damnation and refuse to be saved. It is here, again, that this subject is so intensely modern, and teaches eternal truths. The priests of Baal are four hundred; they have spread their toils so carefully that the people do not want to be redeemed; the force of habit, the dignity of royal sanction, the spells of passion, all are with them; and when that great voice cries, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord,” the people answer not a word. Is not this true still?
Elijah was a man who felt keenly his solitariness in conflict. He felt this specially on Carmel: “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets are four hundred and fifty men.” Even in that terrible reaction which he experienced when under the juniper tree he emphasized the same conviction—a mistake, doubtless; but the mistake of a conscientious man who had already been made to realize keenly his loneliness in the conflict on Carmel. On this occasion we see how the man stands practically alone, for any voice that is lifted up in his defence; and few can realize how keenly he felt it. The men whom God raises up to stand alone are not men who do not feel it greatly. They are men of delicate touch; men who readily respond to sympathy, who feel acutely the sting of reproof. Elijah the prophet was one of these; a man who felt the burden of solitariness and the pain of having no human companion who shared his convictions and feelings.1 [Note: D. Davies.]
Yet to do anything because others do it, and not because the thing is good, or kind, or honest in its own right, is to resign all moral control and captaincy upon yourself, and go post-haste to the devil with the greater number. The respectable are not led so much by any desire of applause as by a positive need for countenance. The weaker and the tamer the man, the more will he require this support; and any positive quality relieves him, by just so much, of this dependence.2 [Note: R. L. Stevenson, Familiar Studies of Men and Books.]
5. But there is also the last and most potent reason of all—moral indecision. There are those who plead honest doubt. But this is rarely sincere. An honest doubter is not contented until he has moved heaven and earth to resolve his doubt. It is related of Zaid, the sage of Mecca, who had broken with the national religion, that he stood with his back to the temple crying, “If I knew thee I would worship thee; but alas, I know thee not.” Thus day after day he prostrated himself and moistened the ground with his tears. Next to wilful sin, indecision is the most pitiable state of man. To hang in doubt between time and eternity, the world and God, a sin and a crown of life, is, we may believe, if possible, more incensing to the Divine jealousy than open disobedience. It implies so much light and so much sense of what is good, that doubt has no plea of ignorance. The irresolution is not in the understanding or in the conscience, but in the will. The fault is in the heart. It convicts one of want of love, gratitude, and all high desires after God; it reveals the stupor and earthliness which is still upon the soul. It proves the absence of faith; of a living consciousness of things unseen, and an active power of realizing what one believes, without which faith is dead. There is upon one a spiritual insensibility, a kind of moral apathy, a listless inattention to any thing which does not make itself felt by forcing its presence upon the senses of the body. And this at last deadens the perceptions of the soul.
It always seems to me in reading this passage that it was not intellectual doubt that Elijah referred to, but rather a habit of moral indecision. I do not find any reason for concluding that these Israelites were in great intellectual doubt or difficulty with respect to the actual problem that lay before them. They could hardly have forgotten all the wonders God had wrought, for their national existence was a proof of His power. At that very moment there stood before them the man who was God’s representative, and who exerted such miraculous power that he only bent the knee to Jehovah in prayer, and for three long dreary years the heavens had been shut. Standing there face to face with Elijah, the Israelites can hardly have entertained any very serious doubts as to whether “Baal” or “God” was really God. If you will look at the margin of your Bibles you will find the word “thoughts” suggested, instead of “opinions.” “How long halt ye between two thoughts?” It is a more general word than “opinion.” “Opinion” seems to lead us up into an intellectual region; “thought” in such a connection may be employed with a moral significance. It is not so much that they had really any intellectual difficulty, as to whether “Jehovah” or “Baal” was God, as that they were in a state of moral indecision as to which of the two they should recognize. This was in the prophet’s mind at the moment when he expostulated with them.1 [Note: Canon Hay Aitken.]
Warn’t we gittin’ on prime with our hot an’ cold blowin’,
Acondemnin’ the war wilst we kep’ it agoin’?
We’d assumed with gret skill a commandin’ position,
On this side or thet, no one couldn’t tell wich one,
So, wutever side wipped, we’d a chance at the plunder
An’ could sue fer infringin’ our paytented thunder;
We were ready to vote fer whoever wuz eligible,
Ef on all pints at issoo he’d stay unintelligible.
Wal, sposin’ we hed to gulp down our perfessions,
We were ready to come out next mornin’ with fresh ones;
Besides, ef we did, ’twas our business alone,
Fer couldn’t we du wut we would with our own?
An’ ef a man can, wen pervisions hev riz so,
Eat up his own words, it’s a marcy it is Song of Solomon 1 [Note: James Russell Lowell, The Biglow Papers, No. IV.]
To the strong and unhesitating spirit that sees the right on the one side as if it were written in letters of fire, and absolute wrong on the other, nothing is so incomprehensible as the lukewarm temper that will not be kindled either to love or to hatred, and seeks rather to avoid any decisive choice. So it was with the great poet Dante, who, in his Divine Comedy, describes for us a special region, outside of the Inferno of agony, a kind of Inferno of contempt, which is prepared for those who have lived “without blame, and without praise.” There Dante places the angels who “neither were rebellious nor were faithful to God, but were only for themselves”; and also the shade of him who made the great renunciation, the Pope Celestine, who in his weak piety withdrew into a monastery, rather than face the task of contending with the evils of the world. “Forthwith,” says the poet, “I understood and felt that this was the crew of caitiffs, hateful to God, and to God’s enemies.” “Mercy and justice alike disdain them; let us not speak of them, but look and pass them by.” Dante’s high strong spirit can comprehend energy and purpose, even when exerted in the cause of evil; he has keen sympathy even for some of those whom he regards as for great sins righteously doomed to everlasting punishment. What he cannot comprehend is the man who does not rise to a great opportunity, who hesitates between two opinions, who seeks to withdraw from the conflict, who shirks responsibility.2 [Note: Edward Caird.]
Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction—where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert—himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason. Huxley preached a humility content to learn from Nature. But the new sceptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn. Thus we should be wrong if we had said hastily that there is no humility typical of our time. The truth is that there is a real humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it is practically a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping: not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.1 [Note: G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.]
Aitken (W. H. M. H.), Mission Sermons, i. 185.
Banks (L. A.), Thirty-One Revival Sermons, 60.
Brooke (S. A.), The Old Testament and Modern Life, 269.
Brown (C.), in Great Texts of the Old Testament, 135.
Burrell (D. J.), The Gospel of Gladness, 80.
Caird (E.), Lay Sermons and Addresses, 178.
Clegg (A.), The Throne and the Voice, 62.
Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women and Children, iv. 584.
Dawson (W. J.), The Threshold of Manhood, 1.
Doney (C. G.), The Throne-Room of the Soul, 179.
Goodwin (H.), Parish Sermons, iv. 63.
Kemble (C.), Memorials of a Closed Ministry, i. 167.
Lees (H. C.), in The Keswick Week, 1908, 162.
Macaskill (M.), A Highland Pulpit, 137.
Manning (H. E.), Sermons, iii. 54.
Mills (B. R. V.), The Marks of the Church, 136.
Minifie (W. C.), The Mask Torn Off, 102.
Moody-Stuart (K.), Light from the Holy Hills, 89.
Pusey (E. B.), Parochial and Cathedral Sermons, 369.
Robertson (F. W.), The Human Race, 87.
Selby (T. G.), The God of the Patriarchs, 273.
Senior (W.), A Faithful Ministry, 69.
Taylor (W. M.), Elijah the Prophet, 96.
Tholuck (A.), Hours of Christian Devotion, 234.
Twigg (R.), Sermons, 136.
Whiton (J. M.), New Points to Old Texts, 131.
Worden (J. D. W.), Whether of the Twain? 53.
Christian World Pulpit, xiv. 309 (Anderson); xxviii. 41 (Rogers).
Churchman’s Pulpit: Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, xi. 282 (Senior), 283 (Bush).