Great Texts of the Bible
The Excellence of Things Ordinary
And the manna ceased on the morrow, after they had eaten of the old corn of the land.—Joshua 5:12.
1. The giving of the manna to the Israelites was one of the most notable providences of the Exodus. It happened when the pilgrims had struck inland, and were faced with the starvation of the desert. The desert was probably more fertile then than it is now, but even then it was utterly inadequate to provide for that mighty and marching company. Faced by certain starvation, as they thought, we can hardly wonder that Israel began to murmur. “Would to God,” they cried, “we had been left to die in Egypt, where at least we had food to satisfy our hunger.” And it was then, in the hour of their extremity, when faced by the gaunt spectre of starvation, that God wrought the miracle of manna. From that day onward it had never failed, in spite of all murmuring and all rebellion. If the gifts of God depended on man’s faith, the manna would have vanished very quickly. But day after day, through fret and sin and cowardice, God held to His purpose, as He always does; for the long-suffering of God is our salvation.
2. But now the forty years’ journeying was over. The need was gone, and so the manna ceased. Israel awoke one morning, and the ground was no longer white; it was all golden with the ripened corn. We can picture the look of wild astonishment which would flash in an instant into a thousand eyes on that morning of the ceasing of the manna. There was deep doctrine in the giving of the manna. There was doctrine not less deep in its withdrawal. God had His lessons to teach Israel then, and through Israel to teach us all.
Various conjectures have been formed regarding the nature of the manna, which every morning whitened like hoar-frost the ground around the encampment of the Israelites in the wilderness. It was indeed a miraculous substance in the sense of its having been provided at the very time when, and in the very circumstances where, it was required. We can see most conspicuously God’s hand put forth from behind the veil of His ordinary providence, in the abundance and unfailing regularity of the supply, and in the exceptional feature of its corruption if kept over an ordinary day, and its preservation when reserved for the Sabbath. But we have no reason to believe that it was in itself a miraculous substance, a material previously unknown, created specially for the purpose and coming down straight from heaven. God economises the supernatural element in His working, and makes use of ordinary means as far as they will go. He did not create abnormal loaves and fishes in the miracle at Capernaum; He only increased the fisherman’s scanty meal into a feast for thousands; and the extended loaves and fishes were in all respects the same as those which formed the starting-point of the miracle. He who used the ordinary thorny growth of the desert as the medium of His transcendent revelation when He appeared in the burning bush, and converted the simple shepherd’s rod in the hand of Moses into a serpent, and made it the instrument of compassing the deliverance of Israel by signs and wonders, would in all likelihood employ on this occasion a substance indigenous to the desert, as the basis of the great miracle which He wrought for the supply of the daily bread of His people. Such a substance might well have been the white hard exudation that drops from the thorns of the tamarisk shrub, and frequently covers the ground to a considerable extent, which is used for food at the present day by the Arabs, and to which they give the name of manna. We cannot expect to trace an exact correspondence, for some of the qualities and conditions of the manna of Scripture were unmistakably supernatural. It is sufficient if the natural object could serve as a mere fulcrum for the miracle.1 [Note: Hugh Macmillan.]
God’s Provision is always suitable to our Circumstances
The manna was the best possible preparation to answer the nomadic life of the wilderness, where there was no land to sow or reap; but when the land of promise was reached, where there was plenty of ground, and that needing to be tilled, to send down manna from heaven would surely lead to a life of sloth and excess. Therefore, the old corn of the land was better than the manna in such a country; and when the manna ceased, it was because God had better provisions to meet the new circumstances of His people.
Whatever might have been the nature and origin of the mysterious substance which God made use of, it is evident that the manna was intended to serve a wise and gracious purpose in the religious economy of the Israelites. They had followed Moses into the wilderness beyond the reach of ordinary food; where, owing to the nature of the soil and climate, they could neither sow nor reap, and where there was no native provision for their wants. They were in the wilderness, in obedience to God’s command, to be trained and disciplined under His own immediate eye, and amid simple and severe conditions favourable for the checking of all that was evil in them, and fostering all that was good, in order that they might be fit to occupy the Holy Land, and to become God’s holy priesthood for the blessing of all the families of the earth. God therefore engaged to give them what they could not provide for themselves. He who said that if we seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness all other things that we truly need will be given to us, furnished a remarkable illustration of the truth of the promise in the experience of the Israelites.
But this supernatural life was not to last for ever. It was appropriate to the wilderness, God’s special dwelling-place, as it were, where there was nothing but God and nature; but it was not suitable to the Promised Land, in which all the conditions of a natural human life existed, and which was the haunt of man as well as the scene of nature’s most beneficent operations. It was necessary when in the desert, where man could not sow, or reap, or procure support by his own efforts, that he should be fed with manna from heaven; but in a region of agriculture, where man’s ordinary labour sufficed to supply his ordinary wants, the manna would be altogether superfluous.
(1) God gives help where help is needed.—He gave manna when the Israelites could not provide their own food, and continued it only until they were able to supply themselves. Thus was it with our Saviour’s miracles of healing. He removed the disabilities which prevented the sufferers from earning their own bread and helping themselves in the struggle of life. Those who were lagging behind their fellows in the race because of physical weakness and incapacity He brought to the front, and restored to them in full vigour the power which would enable them henceforth to hold their own. And there His aid stopped.
(2) But God encumbers no one with help.—When our Lord was on earth He gave the subjects of His miraculous cures the power to help themselves. And as in natural, so does God act in spiritual, things. He helps us to help ourselves. We must work out our own salvation, for it is God that worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure. No one can truly know what it is to find his sufficiency in God but he who puts forth all the strength which he himself possesses. It is exactly in proportion as we strive to do all, and strive in vain, that we can have an experimental consciousness of God’s almighty aid. And thus the believer feels that God’s strength is made perfect in his own weakness.
I have my hands full, preparing to build our new boat. I have to cut the timber some twenty miles distant and have it carried here. You will probably be disgusted at hearing that I am busy just now making bricks to build a house in which to construct the vessel. Within the last fortnight we have made some ten thousand. That is doubtless poor work to be occupied with in the Mission field, but it must be done; and in even such humble occupation I hope the good Lord will not withhold His blessing. Mission boats unfortunately do not grow of themselves,—they have to be built, every inch of them. But trees have been growing for ages, of the Lord’s planting; and as we fell them I like to think that He ordained them for this purpose.1 [Note: Mackay of Uganda, 385.]
(3) And yet self-help is never independent of God’s help.—The Israelites looked forward from the wilderness to the Promised Land as the place of consummation and rest. All conflict, hardship, and toil would there be over for ever; all hopes and desires would be fulfilled; and life would be one long holiday of ease and enjoyment in a land flowing with milk and honey. But they found that their former discipline in the new circumstances was not ended, but only changed in its character; that amid golden cornfields and rich pastures and luxuriant vineyards they would have to practise in even higher degree the virtues which the wilderness life called forth. The tenure of the Holy Land was a moral one, and only on stern moral conditions could it be owned. They had to enter it as armed soldiers, and to conquer every inch of it; and they had to hold it by a repetition of the same toils and self-denials by which they had won it. And how symbolical was the new corn of the land—the bread for which they toiled in the sweat of their face—of this life of self-conquest and devotion which it sustained! It might seem that their life in the wilderness, directly supported by God and under His immediate care, was higher and more heavenly than their life in Canaan—sowing and reaping their fields, and providing for their wants by their own labour. But it was not so; for the wilderness-life fed by the manna of heaven was only an introduction to, and a preparation for, the higher life of Canaan fed by the corn of earth, which was none the less the gift of God that they had to toil for it.
In George Eliot’s Stradivarius there occur the following suggestive lines:—
Stradivari speaks. The masters only know whose work is good:
They will choose mine, and while God gives them skill
I give them instruments to play upon,
God choosing me to help Him.
Naldo. What! were God
At fault for violins, thou absent?
He were at fault for Stradivari’s work.
That is one view of the work of life in its relation to God—He needing us, demanding that we become “workers together with him.” Another view—the complementary one—is that which recognizes our need of Him. And, while both are undoubtedly acknowledged by Browning, it is the latter on which I think he lays the greater emphasis; as, for example, in the closing lines of “Rabbi Ben Ezra”—
So, take and use Thy work:
Amend what flaws may lurk,
What strain o’ the stuff, what warpings past the aim!
My times be in Thy hand!
Perfect the cup as planned!
Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!1 [Note: J. Flew, Studies in Browning, 198.]
God’s Method of Provision is from the Supernatural to the Natural
1. The incident of the manna of the wilderness giving place to the corn of Canaan is in entire harmony with all God’s dealings with man. The dispensation that was inaugurated by supernatural manifestations is carried on by common helps, and through the homely experiences of human life. The signs and wonders which opened a new era, or were needed to produce faith in great emergencies, are not perpetuated in ordinary circumstances. The creation commenced with a stupendous miracle, but is preserved by the quiet and uniform methods of nature. The Law of Moses, which was given amid the thunders and lightnings of Sinai, was put in force throughout the continuous history of Israel by its own solemn sanctions. The Christianity which first took its place in history by the aid of astonishing miracles appealing to the senses, now maintains its position by its own unobtrusive spiritual power. The gifts of Divine inspiration, which were shown objectively to men in the tongues of flame and the mighty rushing wind of Pentecost, were discontinued when the work of the Holy Ghost was carried on spiritually in all places and in all hearts.
The ceasing of the manna gave to Israel new views of the presence and providence of God. It taught them to see God in common things, and to realise His presence in the fields. The manna was not wholly natural; it was a miracle. It was a striking and supernatural provision. It came from heaven—it was the bread of angels; it was not an ordinary part of the economy of nature. And so when the children of Israel thought of providence, and when they meditated on the care of God, that care for them would always be associated with wonderful and strange interpositions. But the day came when the manna ceased to fall; the providence of God was shifted elsewhere. It was transferred from the miracle of manna to the corn that ripened in a thousand fields. And we see what that achieved for Israel, and how it taught them larger views of providence, for the God of the manna and the God of miracle had become the God who ripens every harvest. No longer in an isolated miracle did Israel find the hand of the Divine. The manna ceased; they were cast back on nature to find in nature the same care of God. And so they learned—what is so hard to learn—that providence had a wider reach than once they dreamed, and that the common field may be as full of heaven as the manna which is the bread of angels.
God gives at appropriate times meat to eat which the world knoweth not of—hidden manna, living bread direct from heaven. And when the manna is withdrawn and we are supplied with corn—with human nature’s daily food—let us seek to profit by what the manna has done for us and taught us. We have received spiritual food that we may have grace and strength to carry on the common duties of life. We have tasted on the Holy Mount that the Lord is gracious, that we may follow hard after Him along the beaten paths of life. The life imparted by Divine power must be sustained by human means. The extraordinary, appropriate to times of religious excitement, must pass into the ordinary experience. What is the birth of a remarkable occasion must become the habit of an ordinary life.
2. It seems a backward step as we read the story; and perhaps we, who no longer have anything like the miraculous intervention and manifestations of Divine power, may look back with a lingering and longing desire that our life had been cast in the days when the more visible and tangible tokens of the Divine glory were manifested in the world. We envy those who lived in the days when manna fell from heaven and the water came forth from the smitten rock, when the Jordan was cleft in twain, and men, without striking a blow, felt that the Divine arm was outstretched on their behalf. They had the miracles; we have the commonplace. They were privileged to behold the extraordinary manifestations of God; we live in a world where there seems scarcely any manifestation of Him at all. But so far from this transition from the extraordinary to the ordinary being a step downwards in the education of human beings, it is distinctly a step upwards. If we will contemplate life from three great standpoints we will see that that is true. Our life is real and strong in proportion as it is filled with a clear conception of God, in proportion as it is full of spiritual vigour within, and in proportion as it is energetic towards those whom we meet abroad. In those three relationships life finds its perfection.
O, where is He that trod the sea,
O, where is He that spake,—
And demons from their victims flee,
The dead their slumbers break;
The palsied rise in freedom strong,
The dumb men talk and sing,
And from blind eyes, benighted long,
Bright beams of morning spring.
O, where is He that trod the sea,
O, where is He that spake,—
And piercing words of liberty
The deaf ears open shake;
And mildest words arrest the haste
Of fever’s deadly fire,
And strong ones heal the weak who waste
Their life in sad desire.
O, where is He that trod the sea,
O, where is He that spake,—
And dark waves, rolling heavily,
A glassy smoothness take;
And lepers, whose own flesh has been
A solitary grave,
See with amaze that they are clean,
And cry, “’Tis He can save!”
O, where is He that trod the sea,—
’Tis only He can save;
To thousands hungering wearily
A wondrous meal He gave:
Full soon, celestially fed,
Their rustic fare they take;
’Twas springtide when He blest the bread
And harvest when He brake.
O, where is He that trod the sea,—
My soul! the Lord is here:
Let all thy fears be hushed in thee;
To leap, to look, to hear,
Be thine: thy needs He’ll satisfy:
Art thou diseased, or dumb?
Or dost thou in thy hunger cry?
“I come,” saith Christ; “I come.”1 [Note: T. T. Lynch, The Rivulet, 42.]
(1) The transition from the extraordinary to the ordinary is a step upwards in our conception of God.—The thought which underlies our regret when we say that we wish we had lived in the days of more marked interposition and manifestation of God is this—that, somehow or other, wherever there is a marvellous or miraculous manifestation of God there is an opportunity of knowing Him which is denied to us in this marvellous and marked fashion. We want to be back in the old day of miracle, and we want the Divine made known to us through His marvels. What is that but saying, “O Lord, Thou hast made the world, and Thou hast made the world according to order, and laws govern that world. Break Thy laws that we may know Thee! Interpose and break up the ordinances of Thine own creation in order that we may understand Thee.” But surely that is to demand almost an impossibility! It is an admission that we have but little conception of the Divine working at all. Or, to put it in another way, suppose that God were to yield to our prayer and that we were to have these constant manifestations of Him, that we should still have the manna falling about our habitations, that we should have every Jordan that interposed an obstacle between us and our desire cleft asunder by miraculous force. What then? We can see immediately what would be the result. That which happens constantly ceases to be extraordinary from the nature of the case; and there would be no more reason for believing in God because of such frequent manifestations of a startling character, for they would no longer be of the very character which we plead is their essential power, they no longer would have any startling features, but would become the commonplace of life. And what then would be our inheritance in God? We should have an occasional God, not a permanent one; and there would be substituted for the God that is about our path and about our bed, the God who only occasionally comes down to manifest Himself in our life.
We are enlarging our thoughts when we lay aside the demand for the miraculous and the marvellous—we enlarge our thoughts of God when we say, “God is not only in the startling things, but also in the commonplace things of life; God is not only in the cleft rock, He is also in the quiet hill and in the soft meadow; He is not only in the cloven sea or the Jordan struck asunder, but also in the little burn that babbles at our feet; He is not only in the sweep of an archangel descending into our midst, He is in the face of the little child that climbs upon our knees for kisses; He is not only in the fire which falls down from heaven, He is also in the faces of the sick and the weary, and the needy that demand our assistance.”1 [Note: W. Boyd Carpenter.]
This commonplace world of ours was the beautiful world of Christ. The world in which we are now living was the one in which He lived and worked on through the days of His appointed time. The duties laid upon our hearts are like to those that were measured out to Him.
And so the Word had breath, and wrought
With human hands the creed of creeds
In loveliness of perfect deeds,
More strong than all poetic thought.
The example set before us for our emulation is that of One who did the humblest of these duties with the same faithfulness and love of service as characterized Him in His higher service as the Word of God and the Saviour of mankind.2 [Note: J. B. Maclean, The Secret of the Stream, 48.]
O Power, more near my life than life itself
(Or what seems life to us in sense immured),
Even as the roots, shut in the darksome earth,
Share in the tree-top’s joyance, and conceive
Of sunshine and wide air and winged things
By sympathy of nature, so do I
Have evidence of Thee so far above,
Yet in and of me! Rather Thou the root
Invisibly sustaining, hid in light,
Not darkness, or in darkness made by us.
If sometimes I must hear good men debate
Of other witness of Thyself than Thou,
As if there needed any help of ours
To nurse Thy flickering life, that else must cease,
Blown out, as ’twere a candle, by men’s breath,
My soul shall not be taken in their snare,
To change her inward surety for their doubt
Muffled from sight in formal robes of proof:
While she can only feel herself through Thee,
I fear not Thy withdrawal; more I fear,
Seeing, to know Thee not, hoodwinked with dreams
Of signs and wonders, while, unnoticed, Thou,
Walking Thy garden still, commun’st with men,
Missed in the commonplace of miracle.1 [Note: James Russell Lowell.]
(2) It is a step upwards in our moral education.—Life is not merely made up of the conceptions which we have of God; these conceptions must issue in our own personal growth. The object which God has in putting us into this little world for the threescore years and ten is not to secure our happiness or to startle us into a kind of hysterical perception of His presence, but to educate us as His children, to bring us after that sort and after that measure that we may enter into His conception of things, that we may be sharers of His character, partakers of His nature, and that we may look at life from His own standpoint. Therefore, when we ask that God should make Himself manifest by these miracles and wonders, we are really making a false conception of our own powers and capabilities in relation to God.
For by what faculty do we perceive God? Do we expect to apprehend Him by the physical eye? Do we imagine that we shall apprehend Him by intellectual effort? Surely those are only conceptions which belong to past ideas, crude notions of God. We cannot perceive God by the physical eye! God is a spirit! We cannot perceive God by our intellectual powers, because the world by wisdom knew not God, and if He be God at all to us He is the Incomprehensible One. Then, of course, the miracle and the wonder are outside the case, for the marvellous can only speak on the plane of things physical or appeal to the power of the mind, the intellectual power within us. Those are not the ways by which we apprehend God; and to imagine that a man would be made to believe in God by a miracle who had no capacity at work that could apprehend God otherwise, is a contradiction in terms. Our Lord was constantly teaching that. In His parable of Dives and Lazarus He uses the very principle. Here the man in his torment imagines that a wonder will convince his brethren. “Send Lazarus! Let the marvel appear! Let the miracles be sent! Send Lazarus!” And the only answer is, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead”—in other words, if they have not the moral capacity to follow the teachings of Moses and the prophets, if they have no moral affinity and sympathy with the prophet’s teaching, no wonder will give them that capacity.
The power which understands and apprehends God is not the physical, not the intellectual, but the moral power within us. The way in which we can understand God is by the exercise of our moral faculties. Jesus Christ was the greatest moral teacher that ever lived, and what is Jesus Christ’s emphatic statement concerning this? He says there are two faculties, two powers by which God can be apprehended, two ways in which we shall be able to ascertain and lay our hand upon our Father in heaven; one is single-mindedness, the other purity of heart.1 [Note: W. Boyd Carpenter.]
The one condition by which we can understand anything or anybody is that we shall be in some degree a sharer of their nature. We talk of knowing God. How can we know Him if we be not righteous? How can we understand Him if we be not holy? How can we enter into His love if no love dwells within our soul? It is the possession of moral faculties that brings power; these make up the fingers of the hand by which alone we can grasp the hand of God, by which He can become a reality to us, entering into our soul and life. Hence, when the message comes to us, “Go forward! Rest no longer upon the miracle! Rest now upon the ordinary manifestations!” it is as if they said, “I make an appeal now to your responsibility; I want responsiveness on your part.” “You must give moral co-operation”—that is the meaning of the message.
Place the tourist who hurries across the Atlantic and through the towns of Europe in order to see or “to do” the Continent—place him with his erratic mind untrained before the greatest masterpieces of art; plant him in the chapel at Florence; let him stand face to face with Michael Angelo’s creations of Night and Morning. His first impression will be, “These are greatly overpraised; why, the very anatomy is faulty; I cannot see why people should praise these things.” But now for a moment imagine that there drops upon that man’s soul as he stands there some little portion of Michael Angelo’s nature. What a transformation takes place within his soul in his power of perception at that moment! Then he sees something new; then these “greatly overpraised” figures begin to have a message for him; they seem to speak into his life now because Michael Angelo is in his soul, and he can read what Michael Angelo meant.1 [Note: W. Boyd Carpenter.]
I am truly glad you like Humboldt’s letters so much. How necessary for appreciation of a book, scene, picture, society, is a certain previous adaptation of the frame of mind! Do you remember how little you cared for that book the first time of reading it in a smaller form? Experience, added light, and the aspect given by events which no purpose or control could have arranged, have given it now fresh meaning and made it a new book.2 [Note: F. W. Robertson, Life and Letters, 449.]
This was one of the first lessons that young Henry Drummond learned from John Ruskin. Before the master came to open his eyes, a ploughed field to Henry Drummond was just a ploughed field—a sight unlovely, unattractive. To Ruskin, however, it was a wonderful study in colour; and so it became to Drummond. At the touch of the master’s hand the commonplace field was transformed before his eyes. And to his ever-deepening vision it became more and more a thing of beauty and a source of joy.3 [Note: J. B. Maclean, The Secret of the Stream, 42.]
(3) It is a step upwards in our co-operation with God.—This is the third aspect of life. Our life is a life of association and society with others, and so long as men were in the state in which they were surrounded by the marvellous and miraculous, the manna fell round about their habitation, and the difference between their condition after they entered into the Promised Land and their condition before, was this, that that manna fell without their effort, it fell just where they could gather it without any exertion, but the corn needed to be sown, and the corn needed to be gathered in the spot where it grew, and therefore the children of Israel were now in the position of being made co-operators in the work of God. Hitherto they had been babes fed just according to the discretion of the parent, now they are the participators in the work, they have passed the stage in which everything is being done for them into the stage in which they are to be morally responsible and co-operative, in which they are to co-operate with God in His great order and His great work.
The sinner’s own fault? So it was.
If every own fault found us out,
Dogged us and hedged us round about,
What comfort should we take because
Not half our due we thus wrung out?
Clearly his own fault. Yet I think
My fault in part, who did not pray
But lagged and would not lead the way.
I, haply, proved his missing link.
God help us both to mend and pray.1 [Note: C. G. Rossetti.]
Co-operation with God is the great step which we make when we reach the conception of Christianity. Christ went up on high but to bestow gifts on men, and that we might be fellow-workers together with God. The stage which we are regretting is the stage of advance; it is the stage where we are brought alongside the great Worker of all good, who works ceaselessly; alongside the Spirit, which works in the hearts of men. And therefore we attain a nobler position. Although we say we no longer live when miracles are wrought, and the Son of God has entered into the heavens, and is an invisible Divine Being to us, the answer comes back, “Yes, but He has left you a heritage of co-operation with Him, He has brought you into the position in which the full corn of the land is to be your food, and not only your food, but is to be gathered by you that it may be the food of other men.” That is a far nobler position.
God is not dumb, that He should speak no more;
If thou hast wanderings in the wilderness
And find’st not Sinai, ’tis thy soul is poor;
There towers the mountain of the voice no less,
Which whoso seeks shall find, but he who bends,
Intent on manna still and mortal ends,
Sees it not, neither hears its thundered lore.
Slowly the Bible of the race is writ.
And not on paper leaves nor leaves of stone:
Each age, each kindred, adds a verse to it,
Texts of despair or hope, of joy or moan.
While swings the sea, while mists the mountains shroud,
While thunder’s surges burst on cliffs of cloud,
Still at the prophets’ feet the nations sit.1 [Note: James Russell Lowell.]
As we advance in Christian experience, we think less of the coming down from heaven in the incarnation, and more of the going back in the ascension. The Babe Jesus is less to us than the ascended Christ. We look, not so much towards the cradle of the manger-bed, as upward to the throne and forward to the second advent. It makes a great difference to us whether we occupy the standpoint of the birth or of the ascension; and many a system of theology, when weighed in the balance, is found wanting, because it fails to understand that the manna ceases when the Jordan is crossed and Canaan entered.2 [Note: F. B. Meyer.]
How to labour and find it sweet:
How to get the good red gold
That veined hides in the granite fold
Under our feet—
The good red gold that is bought and sold,
Raiment to man, and house, and meat!
And how, while delving, to lift the eye
To the far-off mountains of amethyst,
The rounded hills, and the intertwist
Of waters that lie
Calm in the valleys, or that white mist
Sailing across a soundless sky.3 [Note: James Herbert Morse.]
There are Other, if Minor, Lessons to be learned from this Incident
1. The ceasing of the manna should teach us that there is inevitable loss in all our gains. It was a great thing for Israel to gain the plains of Jericho, but, when they had done so, they lost the bread of angels. For forty years they had been struggling forward to win the land of their hopes and of their dreams. Now it was theirs—they stood upon its soil; all they had battled and toiled for had been crowned. But now that it was theirs the manna ceased; the miracle of every morning was no more; and dimly this stubborn people would perceive that something is lost with everything gained.
At every step we take, something must go—something, perhaps, which we reckoned precious yesterday. And he alone is wise and brave and cheerful who recognizes that inevitable law, and presses forward undaunted to the best, with the courage to forget what is behind. We gain the promised land, and lose the manna. We gain experience, and lose the morning dew. We gain the strength and energy of manhood, and lose the freshness and wonder of the child. We gain the peace and the beauty of old age, and lose the strength and energy of manhood.
Now these are facts, and a wise man faces facts. He does not murmur or cry for the impossible. He sets his face steadfastly towards Jerusalem and turns his back upon his boyhood’s Galilee. For he knows that though the manna be withdrawn there will still be the ingathering of the autumn, and he lifts up his eyes, and the fields are white to harvest, “some thirty, some sixty, and some an hundredfold.”
Farewell! since never more for thee
The sun comes up our eastern skies,
Less bright henceforth shall sunshine be
To some fond heart, and saddened eyes.
There are who for thy last long sleep
Shall sleep as sweetly never more,
Shall weep because thou can’st not weep,
And grieve that all thy griefs are o’er.
Sad thrift of love! the loving breast,
On which the aching head was thrown,
Gave up the weary head to rest,
But kept the aching for its own.
2. The ceasing of the manna teaches us to be cautious in asserting that anything is indispensable. If there was one thing graven upon the heart of Israel it was that without the manna they could not live at all. Remember that of those who had left Egypt, only Caleb and Joshua now survived. All the others had been born out in the wilderness, and were children of desert air and desert nurture. The first thing that had caught their eye had been the manna. The first food they had tasted had been manna. As children, as boys, as men in the prime of manhood, it was manna that had stood between them and death; until at last, after these years of nurture, of daily and unvarying dependence, there was not a man in Israel but would think that manna was indispensable to him. Then in the plain of Jericho the manna ceased. The morning dawned when the manna was not there. For the first time in nine-and-thirty years the ground was not white with sustenance from heaven. And did they perish then, or did God let them starve?
There is no worse service that any man can render than calling that indispensable which is not really so. Some things are vital to life and salvation, and to these we must hold in the teeth of all defiance; but apart from these let us be cautious in saying that this or that is indispensable. We have all been fed on certain views of the truth, just as the Israelites were fed on manna. We have looked at the Bible in a certain way since we were children at our mother’s knee. And so wedded were we to that precious nurture, and to the tender memories with which it is inwoven, that to some of us it seemed that we must starve if we were bereft of the manna of our youth. Then came the morning when the manna ceased. Our intellect awoke and it was gone. New truths arrested us—new thoughts of revelation—fresh insight into the ways of God in nature; and the strange thing is that then we did not starve, but were fed upon the finest of the wheat. Christ became real to us, His love became more wonderful; the purposes of God became more magnificent. The manna of our unthinking childhood ceased only to lead us to the harvest field. And so we have learned in the conflict of to-day, when the faith of Jesus is fighting for its life, to be very cautious lest we harm the cause by saying that this or that is indispensable. The one thing vital is that Jesus came, and lived, and died as a sacrifice, and rose. Fix the one point of the compass fast in that, and let the other swing as widely as you please.1 [Note: G. H. Morrison.]
3. There is one other lesson to link with the ceasing of the manna. It is that God, as we advance in life, brings us back to the food of long ago. Had there been any manna down in Egypt? Had manna been Israel’s food before the Exodus? There were few now who could recall these days; yet corn, not manna, had been the food of Egypt. And now the wanderers come back to corn, to the old nurture of the storied past, yet all so radiant now with love and mercy that the old has become new for evermore. That was the path by which God led His people. He brought them back to the old, and it was new. That is the path by which God leads us all, if we are in earnest to know and do His will. We toil and we suffer and we play our part, and we feast on dew-touched manna for a season; but the truths that we need to live by and to die by are the commonplaces of long ago. We have all had our manna days, and we thank God for them, they were so full of wonder and delight. But life is stern, and sin is very terrible, and the manna has ceased and we are back to corn—back to our fathers’ need of a Redeemer, back to the feet of an all-sufficient Christ.
There is a childhood into which we grow,
A heart-simplicity whereby we hold
Love’s sunshine fairer than the glint of gold,
As that we hope for passeth that we know:
Warm memories from the tender long ago
Whisper their tale, and we can ne’er grow old
If now and then life’s shadows grey and cold
Are flooded with our childhood’s after-glow.
We are not old till we forget the way
That leads us from the tumult of the street
To Memory’s dimly-lighted, still retreat,
Where Youth comes back to those who have grown grey,
Where all may find a benison, save they
Whom long forgetfulness hath made unmeet.1 [Note: P. C. Ainsworth, Poems and Sonnets, 63.]
Evans (E. H.), True and False Aims, 28.
Macmillan (H.), Two Worlds are Ours, 177.
Meyer (F. B.), Joshua and the Land of Promise, 50.
Morrison (G. H.), The Wings of the Morning, 44.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Morning by Morning, 1.
Talmage (T. de W.), Sermons, v. 215.
Christian World Pulpit, lii. 113 (Carpenter).