Great Texts of the Bible
Seeing the Invisible
He endured, as seeing him who is invisible.—Hebrews 11:27.
1. The reference of these striking words is to the lawgiver Moses, who has his place in the great procession of spiritual heroes by title of the faith which he exhibited when, as a young man, he chose rather to be evil entreated with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. According to the popular belief, Moses had an assured position in the court of Egypt, where he was the adopted son of the princess and the favourite of the Pharaoh. This assured position, however, depended upon his acceptance of one condition, which might have seemed easy enough to most men, but which threw into revolt the best elements of this young man’s character. Would he repudiate his ancestral race and disclaim for himself any interest in its mysterious hopes? Would he consent to be an Egyptian, in order to enjoy the future which the romantic circumstances of his childhood had brought within his reach? There was much to induce him to take this course. Scripture represents him as owing much, even his preservation from death, to the kindly interest of the Egyptian princess; he had grown to manhood in the society of Egypt; his link with his own people was the slightest conceivable, although upon it everything depended. Moses, however, had not been so distant from his nation as not to have learned the sacred secret of its religious hope; he had received from his mother when, as nurse, she had reared him for Pharaoh’s daughter, such a training as made it impossible for him to mistake the religious meaning of the decision which in due course he had to take. That decision is expressed in the words of the text, “By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible.”
2. Moses saw something that was invisible to most men—something that was more important than the splendours of the Egyptian Empire. The first thing he saw was his love for his own people—a sort of patriotism, though the Hebrews were then, as now, a nation without a country. There was the call of the blood surging in the ears of Moses. And that was more persuasive than the call of a foreign luxury. But the next thing he saw was more powerful still, just as it was invisible in an even deeper sense than this call of the blood. This second thing was not a thing at all, but a Being—Moses saw God. And the splendours even of Pharaoh shrivelled into nothing in the presence of God. This is what we have, then, in the text: the most impressive and magnificent things upon the surface of life are not really the most important or the most powerful. When an alien empire is pitted against a slave people that is ours, a slave people wins. It is, after all, the stronger, and the more important. And when luxury and wealth are pitted against God, God wins. He is more real and more powerful than armies, and trusts, and all pleasures. That is, the things that shine and shout upon the surface are not the real or important things of life; the things that lie deep, and are silent and invisible—these are the real and important things. Now, it is well that we should understand and believe this. For to-day, as at all times, the things on the surface do shine and shout. They seem supremely attractive. They appeal to the mind and the imagination, as well as to the eye and ear. Empire, wealth, pleasure, success—every man can feel their glamour at once. But God, forgiveness, right, heaven—these are invisible. They cannot compete with the other things in the markets of the world. They fill very little space in our newspapers. They do not figure largely in Parliamentary debates. They are not on the surface. They are not seen at first sight. They are invisible. But they are the great things, the important things, the eternal things.
3. In the life of Moses, then, the secret which explains all else was just the sight of the invisible. Faith, when it is directed upon this object, has the attribute of sight. For such belief is, indeed, a second sight; it is the operation of a new sense opened upon another and invisible world. Moses saw God. This clear sight of a living Being who did not meet the eye of sense is a different sort of motive from that which has always governed, and still does govern, the greater and the lesser rulers of mankind. The sight of the Invisible means an addition to knowledge which itself is power—power of a very high order, considering who the Invisible is. They who discern beyond the narrow limits of this present existence the outline of an eternal and imperishable world, and Him in whom that world centres—these men see, or hear, in true proportion. They hope for nothing, they are surprised at nothing: they are sure that all will be right in the end. They pass, one after another, before us, and away from us, endowed with a calm and majestic strength—a strength which this high vision bestows—having their eyes fixed on the invisible.
The text is in two parts—
I. The Secret of Moses’ Greatness—“He endured.”
II. The Secret of Moses’ Endurance—“As seeing him who is invisible.”
The Secret of Moses’ Greatness
1. It is not by any accident of rhetoric that the word “endured” is linked with the name of Moses in the text, for, of all the characters in the Bible, or in all biography for that matter, none more fitly illustrates the moral quality of endurance. There may have been men more brave and more eloquent; but in this homely virtue no man stands nearer the summit of moral greatness. He came there not by chance. He was not swept there by fortunate circumstances. He aimed at it by deliberate choice; he attained to it by earnest striving; he maintained it by prolonged effort. If he had chosen to take life easy few had better opportunity. If he had been content to go with the drift of circumstance he might have possessed the treasures of Egypt and filled the throne of the Pharaohs. He could easily have reached the summit of that kind of greatness, and instead of filling an unknown grave in the wilderness of Moab he might have been an embalmed mummy in the museum of Cairo, the object of the pilgrimage of the learned and the curious. But when he came to maturity of thought and moral responsibility, he weighed all these material things, and over against them and above them he saw a moral duty, a moral ideal, something better worth living for.
What do you think of yourself? What do you think of the world? These are questions with which all must deal as it seems good to them. They are riddles of the Sphinx, and in some way or other we must deal with them. In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark. If we decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer, that, too, is a choice; but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril. If a man chooses to turn his back altogether on God and the future, no one can prevent him; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man thinks otherwise and acts as he thinks, I do not see that any one can prove that he is mistaken. Each must act as he thinks best; and if he is wrong, so much the worse for him. We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? “Be strong and of a good courage.” Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.1 [Note: J. Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, 353.]
2. The choice of Moses was a moral duty. Having made it, he strove to make it good. Often weakened by his own natural timidity, and praying God to relieve him and send a stronger man to the task, he yet endured. Tempted by wealth and by position, he yet resisted and endured. Threatened by royal power, banished from the royal presence, a fugitive from royal wrath, he endured. Tried by the clamour of men and by the solitude of the wilderness for forty years, he yet endured. Bowed down by the pusillanimity and ingratitude of those for whom he made the sacrifice, he yet rose again, and again resolved, determined, and endured until he led his people to the threshold of assured liberty and saw the promised land of his dreams and of his choice. So much can a man in earnest do. Next in power to the spirit of God is the spirit of a sincere, determined, enduring man. “He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.” “Behold, we count them happy which endure.” Abraham, “after he had patiently endured obtained the promise.” Endurance, then, has more of stress in it, more of value, more of character in it, than any word in our language. Endurance is the crowning virtue of character.
Then she turned to the Crimea, described the sufferings and the endurance of the troops, and drew her moral: “Upon those who watched, week after week and month after month, this enduring courage, this unalterable patience, simplicity, and good strength, this voiceless strength to suffer and be still, it has made an impression never to be forgotten. The Anglo-Saxon on the Crimean heights has won for himself a greater name than the Spartan at Thermopylæ, as the six months’ struggle to endure was a greater proof of what man can do than the six hours’ struggle to fight. The traces of the name and sacrifice of Iphigeneia may still be seen in Taurus: but a greater sacrifice has been there accomplished by a ‘handful’ of brave men who defended that fatal position, even to the death. And if Inkerman now bears a name like that of Thermopylæ, so is the story of those terrible trenches, through which these men patiently and deliberately, and week after week, went, till they returned no more, greater than that of Inkerman. Truly were the Sebastopol trenches, to our men, like the gate of the Infernal Regions—‘Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’ entrate.’ And yet these men would refuse to report themselves sick, lest they should throw more labour on their comrades. They would draw their blankets over their heads and die without a word. Well may it be said that there is hardly an example in history to compare with this long and silent fortitude.”1 [Note: Sir Edward Cook, The Life of Florence Nightingale, i. 316.]
I peered within, and saw a world of sin;
Upward, and saw a world of righteousness,
Downward, and saw darkness and flame begin
Which no man can express.
I girt me up, I gat me up to flee
From face of darkness and devouring flame:
And fled I had, but guilt is loading me
With dust of death and shame.
Yet still the light of righteousness beams pure,
Beams to me from the world of far-off day:—
Lord, who hast called them happy that endure,
Lord, make me such as they.1 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti, Poetical Works, 193.]
The Secret of Moses’ Endurance
“As seeing him who is invisible.”
The faculty of faith, which is the power of endurance under circumstances of alarm and peril, might be analysed into the two qualities of insight and foresight. By it Moses was enabled to divine the actual relative importance of the facts of experience, to look beyond the present, and to see the ultimate destiny of things. Pharaoh’s wrath was no doubt at the moment very formidable, but to one who had realized that Pharaoh was opposing himself to the Divine purpose, and who could therefore see the king’s final overthrow as an assured event, his wrath, however fierce, was stripped of terror. The wretched bondsmen of Israel were to all outward appearance a forlorn and undone people, with whom it would be perilous to be associated, but to one who could see through that miserable aspect to the intrinsic and undying superiority which Israel possessed in the covenant relationship with the God of Abraham, all this external weakness counted for nothing. What St. John says of the Christian faith might be said of all faith in some sense and measure. It is “the victory which overcometh the world.”
1. In nature, as in religion, it is the invisible that is most important and real. We live in a world that appeals at once to our senses—a world of light, of sound, of touch, and of taste; a world of sun and sky, of sweeping horizons and flowing rivers, of trees, and thunderstorms, and fire; a world of hunger, and disease, and death. But the most important things in all this natural world are not the things that we can see. What is the secret of the growing corn? Take a grain from the ear. A learned man could tell you all about its various parts—the little
rootlet tucked away, the little leaflet folded up, each ready to open out if the grain should be let fall into the earth. And then there is the little bag of food attached which would then go to build up the new plant, at the beginning of its life. This is the bag of food which we take to make our flour and bread. But when you have seen these things you have not seen the chief thing. The chief thing is invisible. It is neither the leaf nor the root. It is not even the little mass of food. It is the life. Put that seed under the microscope, and you will not see the life. Test it chemically, and you cannot find it. Burn it, and it neither goes up in the smoke nor remains behind in the ash. The chief thing, the most important thing, is the life, and that is invisible.
Let me here quote a noble sentence, which has often given me much-needed help, and served to remind me that thought is after all as real a thing as matter, when I have been tempted to feel otherwise. It was written by a very wise and tender philosopher, William James, who was never betrayed by his own severe standard of truth and reality into despising the common dreams and aspirations of simpler men. He wrote: “I find it preposterous to suppose that if there be a feeling of unseen reality, shared by numbers of the best men in their best moments, responded to by other men in their deep moments, good to live by, strength-giving—I find it preposterous, I say, to suppose that the goodness of that feeling for living purposes should be held to carry no objective significance, and especially preposterous if it combines harmoniously with an otherwise grounded philosophy of objective truth.” That is a very large and tolerant utterance, both in its suspension of impatient certainties and in its beautiful sympathy with all ardent visions that cannot clearly and convincingly find logical utterance.1 [Note: A. C. Benson, Joyous Gard (1913), 160.]
2. Science and the mastery of nature progress as men are able to see the invisible beneath the surface of the visible. The natural man, or savage, sees the obvious. The civilized or scientific man sees the invisible. Science does not really invent; it discovers. There were just as many natural forces in the garden of Eden as there are in Kensington Gardens. But in Kensington Gardens there are motor-cars. When Columbus crossed the Atlantic he had about him all the forces necessary not only to discover America, but to send wireless telegrams. But we had to wait four hundred years before men learnt to send the telegrams. Never let it be said, then, that religion is an unnatural and foolish affair because it attends to the invisible, and says that God and heaven are more important than Parliaments and this world. The religious man seeks the invisible; so does the scientist. The prophets and apostles say that the invisible is the most important; so does every manufacturer who understands his own business.
In overcast days they could tell the snowy ice-fields far ahead that they could not see, by their reflection on the clouds, and in the same way they can see where open water is by its dark shadow on the heavens in contrast with the white reflection of the snows.1 [Note: Captain R. F. Scott, The Voyage of the Discovery, i. 121.]
Any religion would be a calamity which quenched this sense of the great human adventure in the unknown. There is no certainty which could be other than dull, hard, and materialistic, compared with the infinite hopes and possibilities of this spiritual quest. Only stupid people sneer at the man who says “Credo quia impossibile.” To have faith in the impossible is precisely the function of religion.2 [Note: J. A. Spender, The Comments of Bagshot.]
Clive was in a painfully anxious situation. He could place no confidence in the sincerity or in the courage of his confederate: and whatever confidence he might place in his own military talents, and in the valour and discipline of his troops, it was no light thing to engage an army twenty times as numerous as his own. Before him lay a river over which it was easy to advance, but over which, if things went ill, not one of his little band would ever return. On this occasion, for the first and for the last time, his dauntless spirit, during a few hours, shrank from the fearful responsibility of making a decision. He called a council of war. The majority pronounced against fighting; and Clive declared his concurrence with the majority. Long afterwards, he said that he had never called but one council of war, and that, if he had taken the advice of that council, the British would never have been masters of Bengal. But scarcely had the meeting broken up when he was himself again. He retired alone under the shade of some trees, and passed near an hour there in thought. He came back determined to put every thing to the hazard, and gave orders that all should be in readiness for passing the river on the morrow.3 [Note: Macaulay, Essays Historical and Critical.]
3. It was this truth that received such signal illustration in the career of him to whom the Lord spake face to face as a man speaketh unto his friend; and as each of the three stages of his life called for a different manifestation of the endurance which characterized it all through, we may take these in ordar to show that the vision of God is the secret of endurance (1) amid the temptations of society; (2) amid the temptations of solitude; and (3) amid the temptations of active work.
(1) The vision of God is the secret of endurance amid the temptations of society.—Moses made the great renunciation of his life. For better, for worse, he chose to identify himself with the fallen fortunes of his people, and to work for their release. A mighty purpose, therefore, now fired his soul, and, amid such temptations as Egypt still presented, he endured, as seeing Him who is invisible. And it is the vision of God that is the secret of endurance amid similar temptations in every age. Their form may change, but neither their number nor their power. At a thousand points, consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, casually or permanently, for good or for evil, we are touched by the influences of our environment. If these are openly and aggressively hostile to good, or, as is more likely to be the case, subtly and secretly suggestive of evil, it is vain to hope that common sense, superior education, æsthetic taste, regard for the opinions of others, strength of will, or even moral grit, will under all circumstances suffice to counteract them. These may all be more or less helpful; but for the complete conquest of such temptations as society growingly presents to individual weakness and folly and the inherent love of sin, for the successful subjugation of the world, the flesh and the devil, there is needed the strength which is generated by the clear and constant vision of God. The youth who leaves the country to face the complex life of the city without the help of parental example and restraint, the public official or mercantile pioneer who goes to lands beyond the sea where the prevailing social standard is lower and looser than at home, every man conscious of tendencies within him which a daily crucifixion of self alone can subdue—all need the vision of God if they are to maintain their endurance and their manhood amid the manifold perplexities in which they may find themselves. For this alone has power enough to dispel all moral darkness, and make clear the path which must be trod, if life is to be crowned with victory alike for self and for God.
The world is in many ways, and in mysterious ways, a strong world—a world that demands a store of gracious strength to bear up against it, or to match it. Under so fell a pressure of outward atmosphere, there is call for fulness of inward atmosphere, if yielding or collapse is to make no part of our experience. It were wise to warn ourselves that the heart of all unbelief around us is a heart of opposition to the root and branch of our Christian vitality. We shall often let this vitality suffer unless we ourselves are ready to suffer, to deny ourselves, to hold our own at the cost of pain—the best of our own, which is God’s and Christ’s. And we must hold up and hold on, too, amid the bristling enmities and thick-coming cajoleries with as much of superiority to weak impatience and unholy wrath, to world-like temper and smallness of spirit, as God’s grace can empower us to display. Christ would have us to be magnanimous in the world’s hands as Faithful in Vanity Fair was; and for that we need, most of all, just the faith which was his. There is nothing which more impresses the unbelieving with the sublime sacredness of that which they are withstanding in us, than the firm yet patient and large-hearted endurance of all which they are pleased to lay upon us as those who claim a citizenship in heaven—an endurance which faith at once supports and sweetens. At every turn, it is still this which is “the victory” that gives us the conquest of “the world.”1 [Note: J. A. Ken-Bain, The People of the Pilgrimage, i. 186.]
(2) The vision of God is the secret of endurance amid the temptations of solitude.—“As seeing him who is invisible,” Moses fled into Midian. There for the next forty years he exchanged the temptations of wealth and high position for those of comparative poverty and all but unbroken solitude. As he made effort to penetrate the secret of the inscrutable experience through which he had passed, there would be comfort in the reflection that, whatever else might be lacking in Midian, the artificiality of Egyptian society at least was left far behind. He was free from the incubus of false philosophy and false religion and from other abominations which his soul abhorred. But the ultimate experience of not a few has been that solitude too often belies its promise and develops temptations peculiar to itself; and there are many sad chapters in the history of monasticism that might be cited in proof. There is a world within as well as a world without a man, and no withdrawal from the latter will secure against encroachments on the former. “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: these are the things which defile a man.” So said He who was holy, harmless, and undefiled; and it remains eternally true that the real seat of the evil which proves man’s undoing is not in his circumstances but in himself. And that Moses did not succumb to the temptations of his Midian isolation was due to the fact that, during his long sojourn, he never wholly lost the vision of God.
I have learnt by experience that it is not good to be much alone, but I have not learnt not to enjoy solitude. It is a sweet cup enough, but a subtle poison lurks in its pale beaded amber transparency. It is mischievous, because in solitude the mind runs its own busy race unchecked. To have to mix with other people, to find things that interest them, to humour them, to watch their glances and gestures, is to a person like myself, who is constrained, less even by sympathy than by courtesy, to try to be agreeable, a real and wholesome discipline. I do not want to make myself out as unselfish or genial; but it is a pain to me if any one in whose company I am is discontented or displeased, and I am consequently obliged, for my own comfort ultimately, to keep other people in a good humour. But whether it is altruism or courtesy or mere self-interest matters little. Left to itself, my mind develops a sort of mechanical current, plods along a beaten track, sets itself one way like a flag in a steady wind, and the result is a sort of stupor which is enervating and morbid. It becomes stagnant, and just as stagnant water gives a chance for all sorts of slimy, coiling, flaccid things, half-animal, half-plant, to breed and huddle in the dim warm liquid, so it is with the mind; while the touch of life freshens and enlivens it, like a pool through which a stream flows and ripples.1 [Note: A. C. Benson, Thy Rod and Thy Staff, 200.]
(3) The vision of God is the secret of endurance amid the temptations of active work.—The extreme diffidence with which Moses entered upon his mighty task is in singular contrast with the self-confidence which characterized him forty years before. Then he had thought that his human equipment was enough; now he doubts his sufficiency even with the help of the Divine. Ah, when God has a specially difficult and delicate work for any man to do, He makes him serve a long apprenticeship; but when it is done, it is work against which even the gates of hell cannot prevail. His pride humbled by past failure, and himself made somewhat timid by long isolation from his fellows, it was only a man who saw God, and whose magnificent faith enabled others to see Him, that could do what Moses did. What but this vision could have nerved him to withstand Pharaoh and all the might of Egypt as he did, and at last to lead the people forth into the freedom for which they had prayed and hoped so long? And what but this vision could have enabled him to bear as he did with the frequent backslidings and murmurings and petulances of the demoralized and fickle horde during their long experiences of the wilderness—experiences which were as necessary in their case as they had been in his own if they were to unlearn the evil of Egypt and become a holy nation, a peculiar people to Jehovah?
In these fiercely competitive days, work and temptation are all but convertible terms. As one of our wisest teachers has said: “It is a strange thing how business dulls the sharpness of the spiritual affections. It is strange how the harass of perpetual occupation shuts out God. It is strange how much mingling with the world, politics, and those things which belong to advancing civilization—things which are very often in the way of our duty—deaden the delicate sense of right and wrong.” And in this connexion it is somewhat startling to reflect that the same rule holds good in regard to work for God. Not because we are engaged in work for Him are we beyond the reach of temptation. In earnest, active service, it is true, we are as far removed from the grosser forms of it as it is possible to be in this world; but there are temptations which assail the higher nature as well as the lower, and from these not even the most devoted Christian worker is wholly free. At Meribah Moses gave not God the glory, but spake unadvisedly with his lips; and the temptation which overbore his endurance there is our temptation too.1 [Note: W. H. Macfarlane, Redemptive Service, 51.]
One lesson, Nature, let me learn of thee,
One lesson which in every wind is blown,
One lesson of two duties kept at one
Though the loud world proclaim their enmity—
Of toil unsever’d from tranquillity;
Of labour, that in lasting fruit outgrows
Far noisier schemes, accomplish’d in repose,
Too great for haste, too high for rivalry.
Yes, while on earth a thousand discords ring,
Man’s fitful uproar mingling with his toil,
Still do thy sleepless ministers move on,
Their glorious tasks in silence perfecting;
Still working, blaming still our vain turmoil,
Labourers that shall not fail, when man is gone.1 [Note: Matthew Arnold.]
Seeing the Invisible
Drysdale (A. H.), Christ Invisible Our Gain, 303.
Gunsaulus (F. W.), Paths to Power, 35.
Henson (H. H.), Godly Union and Concord, 113.
Koven (J. de), Sermons, 155.
Macfarlane (W. H.), Redemptive Service, 37.
Mackenzie (R.), The Loom of Providence, 88.
Williams (H. C.), Christ the Centre, 87.
Wright (D.), The Power of an Endless Life, 30.
Christian World Pulpit, lxvii. 294 (H. H. Henson); lxxi. 185 (N. H. Marshall).