Great Texts of the Bible
And the Lord said unto Moses, Wherefore criest thou unto me? speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward.—Exodus 14:15.
These words, which were spoken at the crisis of Israel’s history—at the very moment when, so to speak, Israel came into existence as a nation—were the motto stamped upon the whole subsequent history of the race.
Think when they were spoken. The children of Israel—a race of slaves who had lost all the manliness that ever they possessed, in the long period of servitude they had spent in Egypt—were called by God to go forth and realize His plans; and as this cowering band stood hearing the chariot wheels of the Egyptians behind them—at that time it was, when their hearts were sunk within them, that they turned to their leaders for guidance. Then the message came clearly forth, “Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward.”
It was a terrible moment. The Egyptian army was pressing on behind them with chariots and horsemen, and they had no means of defence. The sea lay before them, and they had no ability to cross it. They already talked of their graves, wishing that they had been prepared somewhere else than in the wilderness. The very prophet paused and was at a loss. While he rebuked his refractory people, he knew no longer how to guide them. He assured them that they should be delivered, but he could not see how that deliverance should be brought to pass. Towards them he kept a bold front, and told them that if they would “stand still, the Lord would fight for them.” But his own heart was at a stand. He did not murmur like the tribes whom he led. He did not despair like them. But he remained motionless, and gave himself to supplication. Then came the Divine word to him: “Wherefore criest thou unto me? speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward.” It was an inspiriting word. It was so to him, and it may be made so to us.
There is a story in the books of the old Jewish Rabbis, which tells us that the Israelites when they reached the Red Sea after their escape from Egypt were very excited. Now Israelites always were and always are rather excitable. But they were especially excitable on that occasion. They were all right when everything went well and smoothly; but when things were not going well and smoothly, and the Egyptians were hurrying up behind them and the sea was in front of them, they grew so excited that Moses had his hands full. And they all wanted to do different things; they had not yet learned to trust God and Moses in time of danger; and so they cried out all at once, giving one another different advice and wanting to do different things. Four classes especially were among them. Some said, Let us throw ourselves into the sea; others said, The best thing we can do is to go back to Egypt; others said, Let us go to meet the Egyptians and fight them; and others, Let us shout against them and see what will happen. To those who said, Let us drown ourselves in the sea, Moses said, “Fear not, but stand firm and see the salvation of the Lord.” To those who wanted to get out of their trouble by going back to live in Egypt once more as slaves, Moses said, No, no, as you have seen the Egyptians to-day you shall never see them again. To those who wanted to give battle to the Egyptians he said, Restrain yourselves, “the Lord will fight for you.” And those who thought that shouting would be useful were told—You be quiet. Then when he had got them all in order, Moses did what they had not thought of. He appealed to God Himself, and from Him came the command, Speak to the children of Israel, that they journey forward.1 [Note: S. Singer.]
In a great thaw on one of the American rivers there was a man on one of the cakes of ice which was not actually separated from the unbroken ice. In his terror he did not see this, but knelt down and began to pray aloud for God to deliver him. The spectators on the shore cried, “Stop praying, and run for the shore.”2 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]
“Go forward.” These words contain within themselves all that is to be said about human progress. They express the fact that progress is to be the law of men’s affairs, that God has impressed it upon them. They explain the Divine purpose which marks itself in the story of men’s affairs. We can profitably look back upon the past only if we go there to seek lessons for the future. We can profitably seek lessons for the future only if they are to bring to our hearts hope, eternal hope, greater power in the future than there has been in the past, greater zeal, greater devotion to God’s service, loftier aspirations, higher aims, and the constant increase of the standard of man’s endeavour.
Into whatever province of Divine government we look we find that “Forward” is one of God’s great watchwords—onward to that state which is higher, more perfect. “Forward” was the watchword of creation when God looked upon this earth, formless and void, and when darkness was upon the face of its deep—“Forward” until “thy face shall be covered with light and beauty, and thou shalt be the happy dwelling-place of intelligent and happy beings.” “Forward” is the watchword of redemption. The stone cut out without hands should become a great mountain, and fill the whole earth. The grain of mustard seed should become a great tree, amid the branches of which the fowls of the air should find shelter. The day of small things should be followed by a millennium of peace and triumph, and an eternity of glory.
“That they go forward.” This little word “go” is a familiar word to every follower of Christ. A true follower of His always is stirred by a spirit of “go.” A going Christian is a growing Christian. A going Church has always been a growing Church. Those ages when the Church lost the vision of her Master’s face on Olivet, and let other sounds crowd out of her ears the sound of His voice, were stagnant ages. They are commonly spoken of in history as the dark ages. “Go” is the ringing keynote of the Christian life, whether in man or in the Church.1 [Note: S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Service, 36.]
In what directions should progress be made? To what are we to go forward?
1. To more knowledge. The first essential, in order to all other progress, is progress in knowledge, a continual pressing into clearer and fuller knowledge of God and of His manifold revelations of Himself. When St. Paul breathed forth his fervent wishes for the Colossian converts, his first petition was in these words: “That ye might be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding.” Similarly, when he opens his own heart to the Philippians, he speaks of counting all things but loss “for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord,” and among the main objects of his desire specifies “that I may know Him.” Sir Isaac Newton, towards the close of his illustrious life, spoke of himself as a child who had gathered a few shells on the shores of a boundless sea. What he felt in regard to nature, St. Paul felt in things spiritual—that there were heights above him he had not scaled, depths beneath him he had not fathomed; that rich as he was in grace, there were yet hidden in God treasures of wisdom and knowledge which would make him richer still. Secrets of Christ’s love and power he had guessed at, but felt that that love and power utterly transcended his highest experience. For himself, therefore, and for those for whom he yearned, he was still covetous of more, to know more of that which passeth knowledge. And such, down through all the centuries, has been the aim and effort of the Christian life. Each generation received the measure of knowledge its predecessor had gained; but along with the old, new aspects presented themselves, not contradicting but broadening out the old, and thereupon the enlarged but unfinished structure passed on to other hands.
Spurgeon has three recommendations to give.
(1) Make great efforts to acquire information, especially of a Biblical kind. Be masters of your Bibles whatever other works you have not searched, be at home with the writings of the prophets and apostles. “Let the word of God dwell in you richly.” Having given that the precedence, neglect no field of knowledge. The presence of Jesus on the earth has sanctified the whole realm of nature; and what He has cleansed, call not you common. All that your Father has made is yours, and you should learn from it.
I begin to perceive that it is necessary to know some one thing to the bottom—were it only literature. And yet, sir, the man of the world is a great feature of this age; he is possessed of an extraordinary mass and variety of knowledge; he is everywhere at home; he has seen life in all its phases; and it is impossible but that this great habit of existence should bear fruit.1 [Note: R. L. Stevenson, The Dynamiter.]
(2) Learn always to discriminate between things that differ; and at this particular time this point needs insisting on very emphatically. Many run after novelties, charmed with every new thing; learn to judge between truth and its counterfeits. Others adhere to old teachings; like limpets they stick to the rock; and yet these may only be ancient errors; wherefore “prove all things,” and “hold fast that which is good.” The use of the sieve and the winnowing fan is much to be commended. A man who has asked the Lord to give him clear eyes, by which he shall see the truth, and discern its bearings, and who, by reason of the constant exercise of his faculties, has obtained an accurate judgment, is one fit to be a leader of the Lord’s host.
(3) Hold firmly what you have learned. Alas! in these times, certain men glory in being weathercocks; they hold fast nothing; they have, in fact, nothing worth the holding. “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth,” is the motto of the worst rather than of the best of men. Are they to be our model? “I shape my creed every week” was the confession of one of these divines to me. Whereunto shall I liken such unsettled ones? Are they not like those birds which frequent the Golden Horn, and are to be seen from Constantinople, of which it is said that they are always on the wing, and never rest? No one ever saw them alight on the water or on the land, they are for ever poised in mid-air. The natives call them “lost souls”—seeking rest and finding none; and, methinks, men who have no personal rest in the truth, if they are not themselves unsaved, are, at least, very unlikely to be the means of saving others.
Knowledge hath two wings, Opinion hath but one,
And Opinion soon fails in its orphan flight;
The bird with one wing soon droops its head and falls,
But give it two wings, and it gains its desire.2 [Note: Jalaluddin Rumi.]
2. To higher life. “Go forward” is a summons to individuals and to the Church to advance in Christian character. No worthy, no abiding character can be formed without a basis of belief. But on the other hand, what avails a foundation if it is not built upon? What will it avail to say or think that we are of the root if we show none of the fruit? So the command runs: Go forward, build up yourselves on your most holy faith. Stone after stone, row after row, of gracious character has to be built up with care and diligence. Add to your faith courage, and to courage knowledge, and to knowledge temperance, and to temperance patience, and to patience godliness, and to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love.
No one reaches at once the full measure of the stature of manhood in Jesus Christ. In Him there is placed before us an ideal, infinitely perfect and beautiful, to which we may be ever drawing nearer, and still find it shining above us, like a star that dwells apart. His riches we shall never exhaust, freely as we may draw upon Him. As God has made the soul of man capable of indefinite expansion, so He has set before it in Christ a career of infinite growth and progress.1 [Note: J. Legge.]
Schiller says it is a scientific fact that the animal nature of man, if let have its way, becomes dominant over the spiritual toward middle life; and John Henry Newman says that unless they are subdued by high religious and moral principle, material interests inevitably submerge man’s whole nature into selfish indifference towards all with which self is not concerned. And Dante places man’s encounter with the three animals—the fierce lion of wrath and pride; luxury, the spotted panther; and the gaunt, hungry wolf of avarice—in the middle period of man’s life. There can be no doubt that men and women nearing middle age need to be roused to the necessity of keeping close to God as the only source of fresh impulse to righteousness.2 [Note: L. A. Banks.]
3. To fuller service. There is among us sometimes a notion that religion consists rather in passive emotions than in active deeds. As if in religion man had simply to bare his heart that it might be played on as a stringed instrument by the hand of God. As if spiritual thought and emotion were the whole of religion. That is but half the truth. Out of this inward experience must grow a life devoted to good works. “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” “Not every one that saith to me Lord, Lord, but he that doeth the will of my Father, shall enter the kingdom.”
After all, we shall be known by what we have done, more than by what we have said. I hope that, like the Apostles, our memorial will be our acts. There are good brethren in the world who are unpractical. The grand doctrine of the Second Advent makes them stand with open mouths, peering into the skies, so that I am ready to say, “Ye men of Plymouth, why stand ye here gazing up into Heaven?” The fact that Jesus Christ is to come again is not a reason for star-gazing, but for working in the power of the Holy Ghost. Be not so taken up with speculations as to prefer a Bible-reading over an obscure passage in Revelation to teaching in a ragged-school or discoursing to the poor concerning Jesus. We must have done with day-dreams, and get to work. I believe in eggs, but we must get chickens out of them. I do not mind how big your egg is, it may be an ostrich’s egg if you like; but if there is nothing in it, pray clear away the shell. If something comes of your speculations, God bless them; and even if you should go a little further than I think it wise to venture in that direction, still, if you are thereby made more useful, God be praised for it!1 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]
Some seven centuries ago there was a young Italian keeping a feast with his friends one night; and he wearied of the feast and of the jests. There was nothing wrong, only a friendly feast. He quietly withdrew and went out and stood thoughtfully beneath the blue Italian sky. By and by his friends came out, and they walked home together, and they said to him, “You are in love.” He said nothing, but he had a far-away look upon his face, like a man who is looking into another world. “You are in love. Who is it?” the friends said. “I am,” he replied, “and my bride is called Poverty. No one has been anxious to woo her since Jesus lived, and I am going to serve her all my days.” That young Italian became immortal as one of the greatest Christians who ever lived, under the name of St. Francis. He felt the burden of responsibility to serve the world. He lifted up his rod in God’s strength and went forward.2 [Note: L. A. Banks.]
What are the hindrances to progress? The history of the children of Israel suggests these three—
1. We shall not go forward if we look back. Jeremiah describes the people asking the way to Zion with their faces thitherward. After the roll-call of God’s heroes in the Epistle to the Hebrews there is the application, “Let us run the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus.” With very many the reason they never go forward is that they live looking backward. The story of Lot’s wife has a lesson for all time—turned not into salt, but into stone. Nothing is more sure to turn one to stone than to live looking back. It is to lose all sympathy with the present and all hope for the future; and that past is always distorted and deceptive. Israel was kept from going forward because they dreamed of the leeks, and garlic, and cucumber, and the sweet waters of the Nile. How conveniently they forgot the crack of the taskmaster’s whip and the cruel decree that doomed their sons to death!
I was on Dartmoor some years ago, when we were overtaken by a dense mist. My friend, who knew the moor well, said he would bring us straight to the point we wanted, knowing the part of the stream at which we stood and the direction in which we wanted to go. For a while we went on safely enough; then I stopped and turned to button my waterproof. He too turned for a moment to speak to me. Then instantly he cried, “I have lost my bearings. That turn did it. I don’t know the way any longer.” We went on, thinking we were right, but an hour later, found ourselves back by the bank of the river we had left. We had gone in a complete circle. “Now,” said he, “we can start again; but we must not stop for anything.” Away we went, and he led us right across to the point we wanted. Later he explained to me that knowing the direction at the outset he kept his eye on some furze bush or rock straight before him and so led us in a fairly straight line. “If you lose that,” said he, “you are sure to go in a circle.”1 [Note: M. G. Pearse.]
Here must the Christian onward press,
Through toil and sweat, through foul and fair;
In days of gladness or distress
Of looking back he must beware.
His life of grace must still advance,
His onward gaze fixed on the goal,
With penance, ever new, enhance
The love and virtue of his soul.
2. Another hindrance to progress is to go round instead of going forward. The Sunday Service, hymn, and prayer, and sermon, the round of observances; the daily prayer, the round of phrases. How many of us know this same disease? How many of us suffer from it? Always going on; never going farther. Always going on, but never going forward. The old failings just as they were; no victories, no new possessions, no new visions, no new hopes, no added strength, no fuller service; day after day, week after week, year after year—the same fixed round.
I met with a singular occurrence during my holiday this year. I had gone for a day’s fishing. The river was very low and clear, and my only hope was in crouching under the rocks and hiding myself. Suddenly as I bent down absorbed in my work, not a sound about me but the tinkle of the waterfall, or the brawl of the shallows, there came a faint bleat at my side. I looked over the rock, and there was a sheep standing deep in the water. I called to my friend who was with me, and together we lifted the poor beast up over the steep bushy bank. To our unutterable disgust, it instantly turned and flopped into the water again. Again we leaned over the bank, and lifted it out once more, and this time took care to take it far enough to be safe. At once it began to walk, but only went round and round. “What is the matter with it?” said I, recalling the West-country saying, “as maäzed as a sheep.” “Oh,” said my friend,” it has got the rounders, something the matter with the brain. They think they are going on, but they are always going round.” “Poor thing,” said I. “I know many people like that, only it is something the matter with the heart. They think they are going on, but they are always going round.”1 [Note: M. G. Pearse.]
3. A third hindrance is fear. Israel often looked forward, but got no farther. They said, “Their cities are walled up to heaven. The men are giants, in whose sight we are as grasshoppers,” and they went back again to the dreary round in the wilderness. Now our safety is in going on.
When I was in South Africa, I heard a humorous story—true, I may say, for it came to me at first hand. Two young men who had three days’ holiday had set their hearts on riding up the country each to see the young lady to whom he was engaged. With light hearts they started, and entered the forest through which we were riding when my friend told me the story. Surrounded by the glory of the blue sky, under the shadow of the trees they were riding along briskly, when suddenly they were startled by a terrible roar. They pulled up their horses instantly and turned to each other. “That is a lion. No doubt about that,” said one. “It is not safe to go on,” said the other. Then each thought of the lady he loved so well, and begrudged that the rare holiday should be spoiled, and so they pushed on a few yards farther. Then came another roar, and again they stopped. “It is a lion—enraged too.” And they dreaded to proceed. Along the path came a cheery old gentleman, who greeted them with a bright “Good-day,” and then disappeared in front of them amongst the trees. They had called to him about the lion that threatened them, but he was stone deaf, and thinking only it was some pleasant observation about the weather, had nodded and gone on. Once more there came the roar. The horsemen, concerned more about the safety of him who had just left them than their own, said, “We must go and warn him. He is too deaf to hear the roar.” Then was it, as they turned the corner, that they reached a round pool in the heart of the wood, and on the edge of it there sat a group of bull-frogs, whose thunder had melted the hearts of the lovers, and threatened their holiday. With a laugh at their own fright, they hastened on their way. “It is a lion,” saith Fear. “We must stay.” … But he who goes on shall find most commonly that it is but a bull-frog. Go forward.1 [Note: M. G. Pearse.]
Be you still, be you still, trembling heart;
Remember the wisdom out of the old days.
He who trembles before the flame and the flood,
And the winds that blow through the starry ways,
Let the starry winds and the flame and the flood
Cover over and hide, for he hath no part
With the proud, majestical multitude.2 [Note: W. B. Yeats.]
Banks (L. A.), Sermons which have won Souls, 175.
Brown (J. B.), The Sunday Afternoon, 428, 436.
Campbell (Mrs.), Music from the Harps of God, 61.
Creighton (M.), University and other Sermons, 160.
Gray (W. H.), The Children’s Friend, 330.
Huntington (F. D.), Christ in the Christian Year (Trinity to Advent), 98.
Lamb (R.), School Sermons, ii. 138.
Mackray (A. N.), Edges and Wedges, 49.
Matheson (G.), Times of Retirement, 119.
Singer (S.), Sermons to Children, 132.
Spurgeon (C. H.), An All-Round Ministry, 40.
Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), x. No. 821.
Christian World Pulpit, vi. 72 (Ann); xxiv. 204 (Legge); xxxviii. 138 (Nicholls); lix. 1 (Farrar); lxi. 253 (Davenport); lxvi. 168 (Taylor); lxviii. 395 (Snell).
Churchman’s Pulpit (Easter Day and Season), vii. 246 (Frothingham).
Preacher’s Magazine, xi. (1900) 54, 112 (Pearse).
Sermons to Britons Abroad, 274.