Great Texts of the Bible
The Sin of Meroz
Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the Lord,
Curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof;
Because they came not to the help of the Lord,
To the help of the Lord against the mighty.—Jdg 5:23.
1. Israel’s struggle against the Canaanitish king Jabin closes the first period of the history of the Judges. Of that struggle the central figure is the speaker in the text—Deborah, prophetess and mother in Israel. This extraordinary woman might have ranked, so far as natural strength of character is concerned, with those of her sex who, by splendid examples, whether of energy, of intellect, or of sanctity, have from time to time reversed the ordinary relations of men and women, and have left their mark for ever upon the history of the world. She belongs to the same class, in respect of natural ascendancy, as Joan of Arc, as Elizabeth of England, as Catharine the Second of Russia, not to mention humbler but, speaking religiously, greater names. She had, besides her natural gifts, the gift of prophecy, as before her had Miriam the sister of the Lawgiver; as had Huldah the wife of Shallum in a later age. Her husband Lapidoth is mentioned; he is mentioned only to be forgotten: Deborah’s was a life shaped by the pursuit of public rather than of domestic objects.
2. Of the actual extent of her influence, of her relation in particular to the northern tribes, of the cause which immediately determined her to proclaim a rising against the Canaanites, we really know nothing. She summoned Barak, her fellow-tribes-man, to advance from Kedesh, in the extreme north of the country, upon Mount Tabor, with ten thousand men, in order to attack Sisera. Barak refused, unless the prophetess would herself accompany him; soldier as he was, he lacked the needful strength and convictions to brace him for the conflict. Deborah warned him that he would thus forfeit the honours of victory. But she joined him at Kedesh. Upon their reaching Mount Tabor, Sisera. brought up the associated Canaanitish forces, and nine hundred chariots of iron. Barak rushed from the heights into the valley; and at Taanach, by the brook Megiddo, a desperate encounter resulted in the utter defeat of Sisera.
3. Sisera fled away, completely routed, and the wild fierce strong woman who “judged Israel at that time,” and the captain of the Israelitish army, sang a splendid proud song of triumph. In it they recount the tribes who had come up to their duty, who had shared the labour and the glory of the fight. And then, in the midst of the torrent of song, there comes this other strain of fiery indignation. One town or village, Meroz, had hung back. Hidden away in some safe valley, it had heard the call which summoned every patriot, but it knew it was in no danger. It had felt the shock of battle on the other side of the hills, and nestled and hid itself only the more snugly. “Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the Lord, curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof; because they came not to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty.”
Joan of Arc was not stuck at the Cross Roads either by rejecting all the paths like Tolstoy or by accepting them all like Nietzsche. She chose a path and went down it like a thunderbolt. Yet Joan, when I come to think of her, had in her all that was true either in Tolstoy or Nietzsche—all that was even tolerable in either of them. I thought of all that is noble in Tolstoy: the pleasure in plain things, especially in plain pity, the actualities of the earth, the reverence for the poor, the dignity of the bowed back. Joan of Arc had all that, and with this great addition: that she endured poverty while she admired it, whereas Tolstoy is only a typical aristocrat trying to find out its secret. And then I thought of all that was brave and proud and pathetic in poor Nietzsche and his mutiny against the emptiness and timidity of our time. I thought of his cry for the ecstatic equilibrium of danger, his hunger for the rush of great horses, his cry to arms. Well, Joan of Arc had all that; and, again, with this difference, that she did not praise fighting, but fought. We know that she was not afraid of an army, while Nietzsche for all we know was afraid of a cow. Tolstoy only praised the peasant; she was the peasant. Nietzsche only praised the warrior; she was the warrior. She beat them both at their own antagonistic ideals; she was more gentle than the one, more violent than the other. Yet she was a perfectly practical person who did something, while they are wild speculators who do nothing.1 [Note: G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.]
What was the Sin of Meroz?
i. Neglect of Duty
1. Meroz was neutral, impassive, useless. It did not turn traitor; it did not play the spy; it did not succour the foe. It was neither Israelite nor Canaanite. It was neither on this side nor on that. It did not fight. It just did nothing.
Meroz is gone. No record of it except this verse remains. The most ingenious and indefatigable explorer cannot even guess where it once stood. But the curse remains—the violent outburst of the contempt and anger which men feel who have fought and suffered and agonized, and then see other men, who have the same interest in the result as they have, coming out cool and unwounded from their safe hiding-places to take a part of the victory which they have done nothing to secure. Meroz stands for that. It sometimes happens that a man or a town passes completely away from the face of the earth and from the memory of men, and only leaves a name which stands for ever as a sort of symbol or synonym of some quality, some virtue or some vice. So Meroz stands for the shirker; for him who is willing to see other people fight the battles of life, while he simply comes in to take the spoils.
“The old war-horse was out to-day,” I used to say when the Dean had shaken his head with an upward look of grave defiance, as at some threatening onset that he foresaw bearing down. The war-horse! Yes! That was again and again the picture that rose in my mind as the slight figure drew itself together, and the eyes flashed. There would be no flinching in him when the trumpet began to blow: that was clear, as his mouth grew stern. After all, behind all the smiling veils, this world (one felt) is an arena in which the battle of the Lord goes forward. We shall not get through without a tussle, a fierce bout. Evil is strong, and may come in like a flood: and in the great day of Armageddon he at least would not be found unready or unarmed.1 [Note: Life and Letters of Dean Church, 226.]
2. There are many people always who are in the community and in the world what Meroz was in Palestine. For there is an everlasting struggle going on against wickedness and wretchedness. It never ceases. It changes, but it never ceases. It shifts from one place to another. It dies out in one form only to burst out in some other shape. It seems to flag sometimes as if the enemy were giving way, but it never really stops—the endless struggle of all that is good in the world against the enemies of God, against sin and error and want and woe. And the strange and sad thought which sometimes comes upon our minds is that few people after all are really heartily engaged in that struggle. How few have cast themselves into it with all their hearts, how many there are who stand apart and wish it well but never expose themselves for it or do anything to help it!
There is not one of us for whom Meroz has not a lesson. It is short, sharp, decisive. No words need labour it, nor can any words lend it emphasis. Every social sore, every remediable injustice, every unequal law, every unwholesome influence, every bad example, every false moral standard, every assertion of religious intolerance, every attempt at religious supremacy—these summon us in our several stations to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty.
Thrice blest is he who can divine
Where real right doth lie,
And dares to take the side that seems
Wrong to man’s blindfold eye.
For right is right, since God is God,
And right the day must win;
To doubt would be disloyalty;
To falter would be sin.2 [Note: F. W. Faber.]
ii. The Duty was Patriotism
Meroz failed first of all in the duty of patriotism. If we are tempted to think that Deborah’s language was unwarrantable, let us consider what we ourselves should say under similar circumstances. Let us suppose that this country had been successfully invaded by a foreign enemy; that during his occupation every form of social and personal misery had been inflicted; that, not to speak of the ruin of our credit, of our trade, of our national character, the exercise of our religion, the sanctity of our homes, the freedom of our persons, had been imperilled or sacrificed; and that at last, under whatever leadership, an organized rising against the invader had been successful, at least within limits, and that he had sustained a decisive reverse. And let us further suppose that at the very crisis of his discomfiture, when everything depended upon making his position untenable and upon converting a first disaster into irremediable defeat, some single English town, lying in the very valley along which the torrent of war was sweeping, should refuse assistance or even sympathy to the national forces. Do you think that English public men, or English public writers, reviewing the campaign when all was over, would be sparing of denunciation, after their own fashion, of such treachery to the national cause? Would they not insist upon the preciousness, the sanctity, of the national life; upon the folly and wickedness of preaching any doctrine which could destroy or impair it; upon the duty of laying aside all private opinions, grudges, hesitations, in presence of so absorbing, so overwhelming a catastrophe as an invasion?
Let us put ourselves back among the besieged at Ladysmith. Supposing that there was a man in the garrison there who refused to take his part, what would be the five reasons which would make him incur even the curse of the women and children? First of all there was a battle to fight. We have no concern with the rightness or wrongness of the war when we are fighting a battle in a place like Ladysmith; clearly, the duty of every one in that place was to guard the women and children and to hold out till they died. Then, secondly, they were face to face with a strong and powerful foe. In the third place, they had a brave captain who was leading them, and who was doing his very best to inspire his men with courage. In the fourth place, every day there was the possibility that at any moment the enemy might come in like a flood and sweep the whole place away. And lastly, the women and children, whom every true-hearted man was bound to protect, were in danger unless each man stood at his post. I can therefore imagine the kind of curse which would have been uttered over any shirker in the place: “Curse ye that man because he comes not to the help of his country: because he stands not by the women and the children in their hour of danger.” The indifferent, we all feel, in such circumstances, would have rightly incurred the curse.1 [Note: Bishop A. F. W. Ingram.]
Alluding to Mr. Hodgson, the defeated candidate, and how we should still keep an eye on him, I said that a gentleman saw a boy hitting another who was down, and remonstrated with him for hitting an antagonist who was down—to which the boy replied, “Ah, but you don‘t know how much trouble I had to get him down.”2 [Note: Sir Wilfrid Lawson, Life, 25.]
I know no nobler words, no loftier human standard, no more sublime ideal for the present juncture, than the masterpiece of literature with which Abraham Lincoln enriched the political library of the United States. The War of Secession was drawing to a close, and that great man, in whose character were combined the highest instincts of a true statesman and the tender-hearted generosity of a fervent Christian, had been for the second time elected to the presidential chair. In his Inaugural Address to Congress he spoke feelingly of both the Federal and the Confederate Forces. “Each looked,” he said, “for an easier triumph. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.… The prayers of both could not be answered.” And his message closed with these words: “With malice toward none: with charity for all: with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in: to bind up the nation’s wounds: to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan: to do all that may achieve a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations.”3 [Note: R. H. Hadden.]
A girl at school in France began to describe one of our regiments on parade to her French schoolmates, and as she went on, she told me, the recollection grew so vivid, she became so proud to be the countrywoman of such soldiers, and so sorry to be in another country, that her voice failed her and she burst into tears. I have never forgotten that girl, and I think she very nearly deserves a statue. To call her a young lady, with all its niminy associations, would be to offer her an insult. She may rest assured of one thing, although she never should marry a heroic general, never see any great or immediate result of her life, she will not have lived in vain for her native land.4 [Note: R. L. Stevenson, An Inland Voyage.]
iii. Patriotism was Religion
1. Deborah identifies the cause of Israel with the cause of Israel’s God. To be disloyal to the nation implied, to her thinking, religious treason. This identification of patriotism and religion belongs to an early phase of religious development, and is unquestionably associated with the crudest notions of the Deity, and of His relation to His worshippers. In disregarding the primitive notions, however, mankind has not parted with the old habit which they created. Even among the civilized Christian communities of the modern world the tendency to identify the apparent interests of the nation with the cause of God prevails. In time of deep patriotic emotion this would seem to be inevitable. For the religious instincts are then alert and active; men have been lifted above themselves; they are deliberately facing extraordinary demands on their self-control and power of self-sacrifice. Religion gathers into itself, unifies, exalts, and hallows all these highest sentiments of human nature. Patriotism, just in proportion to its sincerity and its strength, merges into religion. The words of Deborah are found to utter the very thoughts of Christian men, as they gird themselves for a desperate effort, and see their fellows flinch from the task. It is said that the famous Presbyterian divine, Stephen Marshall, preached no less than sixty times from this text. It is a curious evidence of the temper of men’s minds at that period when the great civil war was on the verge of breaking out.
Political servitude was not the only effect of the Canaanitish power; the continuance of that power meant the predominance of the gods of the Canaanites and the perpetuation of coarse and debasing forms of nature-worship. Deborah and Barak, whatever their faults, stood for Jehovah, a spiritual Deity with a high morality. On Israel’s freedom depended not merely her national existence and material prosperity, but the triumph of her purer faith.
2. Assuming the conception of human affairs as the scene of a true conflict between the will of God and oppugnant forces, how ought our conduct as patriotic citizens to be affected? Can we, as presumably in that primitive age Deborah and her contemporaries could do, simply accept the national interest, in the conventional and obvious sense of the phrase, as competent to interpret for us our religious duty? Is it enough to be consistently and enthusiastically an advocate for our own country at every point and on every occasion? Has religion fulfilled its function when it stimulates and exalts patriotism? We shall all agree that Christianity cannot be satisfied by these suggestions. The religion of Christ is not, in the old sense of the phrase, a national religion. Christ has commissioned no nation and no race to be, in any exceptional or exclusive sense, the historic guardian of His truth. “We must obey God rather than men” is a formula of essential Christianity; and God still speaks to us, as in the old prophetic age, most authoritatively and intelligibly from within ourselves. “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”
We may be too ready to identify the political interests of the nation, as they appear to ourselves, with the cause of God. We are all naturally disposed to elevate our personal judgment in practical affairs into a standard of essential right, like George iii., who confessed that “since he had no wish but the prosperity of his own dominions, he must look upon all who would not heartily assist him as bad men, as well as bad subjects.” I need not point out that this attitude of mind is quite inconsistent with genuine tolerance: indeed, the reason why intolerance has been so frequently associated with religion is simply the fact that the identification of personal perceptions of truth and right with the cause of God is, within the religious sphere, eminently natural and, therefore, extremely frequent.1 [Note: Canon Hensley Henson.]
There is a famous passage in one of Edmund Burke’s speeches—which are the classics of English political literature—which describes what in those days of corruption was a familiar phenomenon of public life, the decline of virtue in a politician. In a more general sense, we may borrow his words as true not of politicians only, but of us all, as we in turn pass into public life in one or other form of social activity: “I believe,” he said, “the instances are exceedingly rare of men immediately passing over a clear, marked line of virtue into declared vice and corruption. There are a sort of middle tints and shades between the two extremes; there is something uncertain on the confines of the two empires which they first pass through, and which renders the change easy and imperceptible. There are even a sort of impositions so well contrived that, at the very time the path of rectitude is quitted for ever, men seem to be advancing into some higher and nobler road of public conduct.”
A cause like ours is holy,
And it useth holy things;
While over the storm of a righteous strife,
May shine the angel’s wings.
Where’er our duty leads us,
The grace of God is there,
And the lurid shrine of war may hold
The Eucharist of prayer.
iv. Religion is the Progress of the Kingdom
1. It is Christ’s spiritual kingdom against which Satan directs his fiercest assaults, and to which Christians owe their most devoted service. Devotion to Religion should be another name for devotedness to Christ. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”;—this is the motive and the blessing of all forms of work in the Church of God.
The great struggle of good and evil, of truth and error, which was raging when Deborah judged Israel rages still. The great laws of the moral world do not vary, however different, under different dispensations, may be the authoritative enunciation of truth, or the means of propagating and defending it. Jabin and Sisera never really die; Deborah is always despairing, triumphing, hoping, judging by turns. And the opportunities of generously serving Jesus Christ are few; perhaps not more than one in a lifetime. They come, they do not return. The day before Meroz failed there was no warning of the coming trial; the day after, there was no reversal of its moral doom.
As I think over why it is that the curse of God comes down on the indifferent man in St. Pancras who does nothing and cares nothing, it is because there is standing among us One whom we see not, who cries as He cried in the very Gospel for this Sunday: “He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth.” The man who stands there in the office, in the parish, in the workshop, and who does nothing, is an influence dead against the influence of Jesus Christ—an inert friend is counted an enemy. “He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth.” Those are His own words.1 [Note: Bishop A. F. W. Ingram.]
Arise, my soul! nor dream the hours
Of life away;
Arise! and do thy being’s work
While yet ’tis day.
The doer, not the dreamer, breaks
The baleful spell,
Which binds with iron bands the earth
On which we dwell.
Up, soul! or war, with fiery feet,
Will tread down men;
Up! or his bloody hands will reap
The earth again.
O dreamer, wake! your brother man
Is still a slave;
And thousands go heart-crushed this morn
Unto the grave.
The brow of wrong is laurel-crowned,
Not girt with shame:
And love and truth and right as yet
Are but a name.
From out time’s urn your golden hours
Flow fast away:—
Then dreamer, up! and do life’s work
While yet ’tis day.
2. To believe with all our hearts in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to believe that we ourselves have been commissioned to do His work in the world; we are surely called so to act in our several stations that they become serviceable in the interest of the world’s redemption. We are to know, to understand, even to possess “the Mind of Christ”; and then to express that mind in the activities and relationships of life. In the language of Deborah, we are summoned “to come to the help of the Lord against the mighty.”
(1) No one will question the duty of the Church in the evangelization of the world. The Church is bidden go into all the world and preach deliverance to the captives and the opening of the prison doors to them that are bound. It is the Lord’s battle. It has the advantage of appealing to the heroic in men, of awaking their deepest sympathies, of commanding their best activities, of moving them to the greatest sacrifices. It is a warfare with error, superstition, cruelty, which is relentless, unending; and the cry to all who are Christ’s, to all who look for the dawn of His day of peace, light, love, is to come up to the help of the Lord among the mighty.
(2) How small is the number of persons who will interest themselves in any work that requires a public spirit; for instance, in any municipal election on which so much depends! When some theological conviction or political question is to the front they will throw themselves into it; but when it comes to a matter of the real, quiet, Christlike work that is done by some of our men on County Councils, Boards of Guardians, and other bodies, how very few will give their sympathy and help to it!
(3) How many of the people among us who are in positions of influence in the various occupations feel any kind of responsibility for the elevation of their occupation, feel any desire to make it a stronghold against the power of evil? How many merchants feel that it belongs to them to elevate the standards of trade? How many teachers value their relation to the young because they have the chance to strengthen character against temptation? How many men and women in social life care to develop the higher uses of society, making it the bulwark and the educator of man’s purer, finer, deeper life? Every occupation is capable of this profound treatment, besides its mere treatment as a means of livelihood or of personal advancement. In every occupation there are some men who conceive of it so. How few they are! The mass of men who trade and teach and live their social life never get beyond the merely selfish thought about it all. The lack of a sense of responsibility, the selfishness of life, is the great impression that is forced upon us constantly.
As I look round London, I see a most tremendous battle eternally going on. I have got to know of late years more of the inner life of some of the great factories, warehouses, houses of business, than I knew five years ago; and I know that there is a battle in every one of those great houses such as sometimes we, who are outside of them, seldom suspect. Just imagine what that lad has to bear who hears the filthy talk about women from the men, perhaps the elder men, of the place, who ought to be setting him an example. It is only evidence from place after place which I am absolutely bound to believe that has shown me how strong the battle is, where men and lads are herded together day after day. I have known many a man who has had to stand a positive persecution; I know now some who are in a terribly hot part of the battle. And I can imagine the Captain who is watching it all, and sees the man, perhaps the foreman, perhaps the elder clerk, who, by his position, is the man to put down that kind of thing, skulking and doing nothing; and I can almost hear the curse of God ring over the man’s head, “Curse ye Meroz, curse him because when my little lads are in their day of trial, he comes not to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty.”1 [Note: Bishop A. F. W. Ingram.]
(4) To how many Christians does the religious life present itself in the enthusiastic and inspiring aspect of working and fighting for God? Almost all Christians never get beyond the first thought of saving their own souls. There is nothing which so comes to impress a man as the way in which the vast majority of men hold back and, with no ill-will but all good wishes, let the interests of their fellow-men and of goodness and of God take care of themselves.
There are people—plenty of people—who will work themselves into a state of white heat about religious education, but who will not teach in the Sunday Schools. There are people who will attend meetings where they will be inflamed by some theological firebrand, and cheer to the echo, but who will not themselves touch one of the burdens. They will not become managers of Board schools, and show by their presence and sympathy that they regard contact with little children as a blessed thing. They sit like Meroz in their snug drawing-rooms, and lament the sad fate of the children of London, but they do nothing to come in contact with them themselves. They will criticize their best friends, but they do nothing themselves.2 [Note: Prebendary Eyton.]
3. Notice the phrase that is used: “the help of the Lord.” Does God require help? Does the Lord require the help of feeble and fallible men? No. What does He need? Does He need our prayers? Does He need our services of praise? No. He needs nothing from any of His creatures, but He condescends to use our co-operation; and this rule is universal; it pervades the physical as well as the moral and intellectual kingdom. The earth does not yield its fruits or precious gems, or the mighty forces which lie hidden in its bosom, until man co-operates with the will of God to bring forth and organize the forces of Nature for his own use and purposes. So is it also in the moral and intellectual life. Man’s faculties, intellectual and moral, are not developed, nor are the ills that afflict his bodily frame cured, without man’s agency or without the human will co-operating with the will of God. So it is also in the case of politics, so it is in the action of nations. God does not need man’s aid, yet He claims it.
The men of Meroz were not simply asked to help in freeing Israel from the yoke of Jabin, they were called to the help of the Lord, to take their stand among the strong and brave and true men who were fighting the Lord’s battle. And that is true to-day of the Church of Jesus Christ—even when you have made as many admissions as those who are disposed to cavil at this claim demand shall be made. The Church of Jesus Christ stands for God’s cause and purpose of grace in the world, and with its victory is bound up the highest well-being of mankind; in a word, the salvation of men. To deride the call of the Church is to despise the cause of God. “He that heareth you,” said Jesus to the Seventy before He sent them forth as His heralds, “heareth me; and he that rejecteth you rejecteth me; and he that rejecteth me rejecteth him that sent me.”
“Oh, mother, I have just been in the garden helping God.” “And what have you been doing to help God?” “Well, you see, I found a rose that was not quite blossomed, and I blossomed it.”
Some Reasons for the Sin of Meroz
We do not know what was the reason why the inhabitants of Meroz committed that sin of omission which has made their town a byword for ever. If they held a strategic point on the line of retreat and allowed the enemy to escape, they may have been cowardly or merely indolent. We cannot tell. But we can give reasons why men do not in our own day come to the help of the Lord.
1. One reason given is that God does not really need help.—The language of the text is poetical, figurative; it is not to be taken literally. God will do what He sees best, whether we help Him or not; He can conquer Sisera, at the proper time, without the aid of Meroz. Doubtless He can. But the question is, whether He wills to do so or not; whether, if He wills us to be His agents, we can wisely disobey Him by pleading that we have too much reverence or too much faith to obey. This kind of argument, it must be plain, leaves great room for self-delusion. Men will not argue thus who know by experience that they are likely to be, at least sometimes, swayed by selfish motives of indolence, or timidity, or self-aggrandizement. The faith in the self-propagating power of Christianity which is so strong that it will not support the cause of Christian missions; the robust faith in the indestructible vitality of the Church which, when occasion permits, would illustrate her life by depriving her of the agencies and resources that ordinarily support it; the faith, in short, in God’s power of upholding His own cause in the world which carefully abstains from contributing anything to serve it, so fearful is it of offering a slight to the Divine Omnipotence; this faith, which would seem to be too vigorous to be in any sense practical, would not yet have been developed in the days of Deborah. It is hardly probable that Meroz declined its part in the great struggle from an excess of trust in the strength of Israel’s cause and Israel’s God; men had not then discovered that to obey God’s will was to incur some risk of dishonouring His attributes.
And evermore we sought the fight, but still
Some pale enchantment clouded all our will,
So that we faltered; even when the foe
Lay, at our sudden onset, crushed and low,
As a flame dies, so passed our wrath away—
And fatal to us was the battle-day.1 [Note: Margaret Sackville.]
When Christ will give gifts to St. Peter and the rest, He does not do what He easily could have done, make the fish leap into the boat without their labour and their nets; but He bids them go out into the deep and cast their nets—that is, exercise the accustomed handicraft which they had learned, and in which they were skilled. He teaches thus that He will not give without our work, and yet shows that it is not from our work, but from God’s providing and blessing, that we obtain anything.1 [Note: Luther.]
2. Another reason is false humility.—Now, humility is good when it stimulates, it is bad when it paralyses the active powers of a man. It may do either. We have noble examples of humility as a stimulus; the sense of weakness making a man all the more ardent to use all the strength he has. But if conscious weakness causes a man to believe that it makes no difference whether he works or not, then his humility is his curse.
Some priggish little clerk will say, “I have reason to congratulate myself that I am a civilized person, and not so bloodthirsty as the Mad Mullah.” Somebody ought to say to him, “A really good man would be less bloodthirsty than the Mullah. But you are less bloodthirsty, not because you are more of a good man, but because you are a great deal less of a man. You are not bloodthirsty, not because you would spare your enemy, but because you would run away from him.”2 [Note: G. K. Chesterton, All Things Considered.]
3. Another reason is fear—simple cowardice.—A man is peace-loving, he says; but peace at any price is craven. Eight ranks higher than peace, and often both cannot be had at once. Better one Luther who fights and makes mistakes, than a hundred like Erasmus, who make no mistakes or anything else. He who fears to offend the wicked needs more iron in his blood and more grace in his heart. On dress parade his garments may be faultless, but we save our hurrahs for the man who is stained and scarred by battles.
Cowardice we call the most contemptible of vices. It is the one whose imputation we most indignantly resent. To be called a coward would make the blood boil in the veins of any of us. But the vice is wonderfully common. Nay, we often find ourselves wondering whether it is not universal, whether we are not all cowards somewhere in our nature. Physical cowardice all of us do not have. Indeed, physical cowardice is rarer than we think. A war or a shipwreck always brings out our surprise when we see how many men there are that can march up to a battery, or stand and watch the water creep up the side of their ship to drown them, and never quail. But moral courage is another thing. To dare to do just what we know we ought to do, without being in the least hindered or disturbed by the presence of men who we know will either hate or despise or ridicule us for what we are doing—that is rare indeed.1 [Note: Phillips Brooks.]
When all seems lost, and fate unkind
Throws shadows deep around,
Be brave, and cast all grief behind,
Be strong, and stand your ground;
Line up in front without a fear—
Brace up, and face the blast;
Let others weaken in the rear—
Be first, and not the last.
Your trouble, loss, or greatest grief
May in your darkest day
Fill black despair with no relief,
Find in the gloom no ray;
But struggle on, be brave and strong,
And to the front look forth;
This world is not completely wrong—
Press on, and test thy worth.
When trumpets call, line up in front;
The struggle is for life;
Where danger lies, let nothing daunt
Your courage in the strife;
Brave souls meet fate with smiling face;
Be proud to die for right.
To fall in front is no disgrace,
Care you how goes the fight?
4. Another reason is indolence—mere laziness.—Perhaps Meroz was not afraid. Perhaps she was not shy and self-distrustful. Perhaps she simply believed that the work of God would somehow get itself done without her, and so waited and waited and came not to the help of the Lord against the mighty. We are always giving elaborate and complicated accounts both of the virtues and of the vices of our fellow-men, which are really as simple and explicable as possible, as clear as daylight. A man does a good thing and we are not content to say that he does it because he is a good man, but must find strange obscure motives for it, some far-off policies and plans, some base root for this bright flower. Another man lets his duty, his clear duty, go undone, and again we set our ingenuity to work to guess why he does not do it. He misconceives his duty, he is too modest, he is waiting for something; when the real trouble is in a simple gross laziness, a mere self-indulgent indolence, which makes him quite indifferent to duty.
Thanks to a few clouds that show
So white against the blue,
At last even I begin to know
What I was born to do;
What else but here to lie
And bask me in the sun?
Well pleased to see the sails go by
In silence one by one;
Or lovingly, along the low
Smooth shore no plough depraves,
To watch the long low lazy flow
Of the luxurious waves.1 [Note: Robert Kelly Weeks.]
i. Is it Unchristian?
1. “Curse ye Meroz, curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof.” The words are strong. Are we to say that the curse of Meroz is “a dark patch of human passion”; that Deborah, in the heat of her exultation and vengeance, was strictly incapable of a balanced moral judgment; that not to have taken part in the pursuit of Sisera was naturally a crime in the eyes of a passionate woman, eager for the emancipation of her race and for the triumph of her cause; but that it is altogether impossible to read history by the light of such excited feelings, and to suppose that Meroz drew on itself, not merely the invective of Deborah, but also the displeasure and condemnation of a Righteous God?
No doubt, “Curse ye Meroz” is always out of place on the lips of fallible men; only supernatural direction could justify in point of reason what, perhaps, nothing could justify in point of charity—an anathema on opponents. When St. Paul, starting his missionary journeys, inaugurated, with whatever justification, the melancholy record of religious coercion by solemnly cursing his most conspicuous opponent, we are specially told that he was supernaturally directed, “filled with the Holy Ghost.” Such supernatural direction alone, indeed, could redeem the Apostle’s action from injustice and unreason—injustice because he could not read his opponent’s heart, or know his motives; unreason, for he could not easily reconcile such violence with “the meekness and gentleness of Christ.” It is certain, however, that we have no apparently supernatural direction in the affairs of life. None of us enjoys immunity from error, or monopoly of wisdom. Even if we can concede to an inspired Apostle the terrible privilege of anathema, we cannot decently claim it for ourselves.
2. Are we to say, then, that this language, though it may be in keeping with the stern spirit of the Law, is out of place in the religion of the Gospel? This, indeed, is often said. But it assumes too hastily that the Gospel repealed not merely the ceremonial but the moral teaching of the Law, not merely its forms of worship but its representation of the Divine attributes, not merely its carnal weapons of warfare but its loyalty to and zeal for truth. In point of fact, the Gospel explained or it enlarged the teaching of the Law. It removed misconceptions which had gathered round that teaching. It did not destroy what God Himself had given. God’s earlier revelation of Himself as a whole, as well as its particular gifts and promises, was, in Apostolic phrase, “without repentance”; it did not admit of repudiation or recall. The Divine attribute of mercy, sufficiently revealed in and insisted on by the Law, acquired under the Gospel a practical and concrete shape in the life and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. The duties of charity, loving-kindness, patience, benevolence, unselfishness, already prescribed by the Law, were elaborated and enforced with a new determination and precision in the Gospel. But the Gospel revelation did not thereby repeal the earlier revelation of the justice of God as a necessary principle of His government; nor did it define the virtue of charity to mean indifference on the subject of moral evil or of intellectual falsehood.
The advance which the New Testament makes upon the Old Testament morality consists largely in this, that the Old said, “Do not commit this or that open sin,” while the New says, “Do not neglect this or that clear duty.” The morality of the older revelation is typified by the Ten Commandments—nearly all negative: Thou shalt not make graven images, take God’s name in vain, work on the Sabbath, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness. True, there are positive elements also; but in large measure the formulated ethical rules of the Old Testament are rules forbidding. It was natural that a Jew should ask, “What actual evil have I wrought in transgression of a Divine word that forbade it?” It was natural that the Pharisee, who exaggerated every evil tendency of Judaism, should be found exclaiming, “God, I thank thee that I am not an extortioner, nor a thief, nor an adulterer.” But Christianity supplies another standard to the conscience. “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven.” “What do ye more than others?” “He that abideth in me … the same beareth much fruit.” And the penetrating judgment of Jesus is not satisfied on finding men guiltless of sinful acts. He separates the sheep from the goats on another principle. Those on the left are not accused of positive ill-deeds; they may have kept every one of the Ten Commandments from their youth up, but they have neglected the sick, the prisoner, the poor. “Inasmuch as ye did it not”—it is the curse of Meroz, the doom awaiting inactivity—“because they came not to the help of the Lord.”1 [Note: J. H. Rushbrooke.]
There are three places in the records of our Lord’s words and deeds where the same truth finds emphasis. Look first at the twenty-fifth chapter of St. Matthew, the parable of the Talents, and see the curse pronounced by Jesus upon the inactive servant who had but the one talent and failed to use it. There is not a line in the parable that suggests any infidelity or sin otherwise than that of inaction, and yet hear the Master’s words, “Take therefore the talent from him. And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Can you not hear in these words of Jesus the very curse of Meroz? Look again at Christ standing before the barren fig-tree. He looks to find the luscious fruit and finds none, and so He curses it and it withers away. Here again we find the curse against unfruitfulness and inactivity. Look once more. Our Lord has ascended; with a last leaning of His heart He bends from heaven to speak through St. John to the Churches. This is the last word of the Master to His Church, found in the Book of Revelation. Hear those words to Laodicea. She is not charged like Ephesus with cherishing heresy, nor like Pergamum with holding the doctrine of Balaam, nor like Thyatira with adultery and fornication, nor like Sardis with defiling her garments. None of these fearful sins is chronicled against Laodicea, and yet the bitterest curse of all is pronounced against her. “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.” What is this but the echoing of the curse of Meroz against lukewarmness, against inactivity, against the shirker and deserter from the battle of the Lord.1 [Note: W. M. Smith.]
3. The tone, no doubt, is not the tone of Christ. We will admit that about religion Deborah, the judge of Israel, had much still to learn. But one sometimes feels that it is fortunate there was a Deborah, that her imperfection has a value of its own. In the very ancient days, when life was simple, broad, and spontaneous, the passions of men had a vehemence and a plain-spokenness, their actions had a violence and a grand directness, which have been mitigated and confused by more reflective days. Our gentler ways are not all gain. Tales of our modern life and manners are not so impressive as tales of the ruder life. These deeds of patriarchs—an Abraham lifting the knife to slay his son, a Phineas cutting down unshrinkingly his idolatrous brethren—teach what they have to teach with incomparable vigour. These deeds, by their simplicity and grand excess, paint a truth of morals in strong, fierce colours which shine across the ages; they write the lesson as with a pen of steel that graves a rock; they dint it into the soul of man past forgetting.
ii. It is the Curse of God
“Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the Lord.” For we must not forget one remarkable characteristic of the Jewish theocracy: what we should term in a secular history its lofty public spirit, its superiority to all that is merely personal and selfish. David and other psalmists especially illustrate this. David reserves his enthusiasms for the friends of God; his aspirations for the success of the cause of God; his anxieties for the risks of God’s Kingdom; his hatred for the enemies of God’s truth and glory: “Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee.” “Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee? I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies.” So Ezra: “Mine eyes run down with rivers of water, because they observe not thy law.” So a captive in Babylon: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.” The language of Deborah was not the expression of a personal, or social, or political spite any more than was the language of David and Ezra. It was not her own cause; not even the cause of her country, as such; it was the cause of the Lord God which she had at heart, which had long since won her love, and now fired and guided her indignation.
iii. And the Curse comes
1. “Curse ye Meroz.” The words still live. May they not be heard within the soul when a man has consciously declined that which conscience has recognized as plain duty? Such a man needs no audible voice of the Angel of the Lord or of the prophetess; conscience prophesies within him.
Every failure of men or nations to fulfil their manifest duty involves by a law of the Divine government of the universe an appropriate punishment. So here. When we turn to Jdg 2:1-5 we see how God uttered such awful words of solemn warning as plunged the nation into penitent sorrow. Why was it? Because instead of rooting out the remaining Canaanites and destroying their altars they were content to make them tributary, consulting thus their ease and their pockets at the same time. They broke the covenant, and, instead of destroying the men and the religious ideas so intimately associated with the land, they preserved them. It was indifference and cowardice from first to last. They had been warned of the result (see Numbers 33:55). Now, I believe the failure of the men of Meroz brought specifically upon them the abiding curse on all negligence and disobedience. What that is is set forth in Jdg 2:1-5—viz. that the men and the idolatrous worship they permitted to remain in the land were as pricks in their eyes, thorns in their side to vex them in the land wherein they dwelt. In other words, the men and the ideas remained in their midst as moral stumbling-blocks or as some contagious disease whose virus would poison the blood of unborn generations to their complete undoing. For their failure the men of Meroz would experience the bitter entail of sin to the full. Their cup would run over with misery and woe. Israel’s subsequent history illustrates the words even if we do not know the after history of Meroz.1 [Note: W. Ll. Williams.]
2. Neither nations nor individuals become reprobates all at once. The process of individual and national decay is usually, if not always, gradual. They go on from lost opportunity to lost opportunity till their fate at last is sealed, and the doom goes forth: “Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the Lord, curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof; because they came not to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty.” But although judgment may tarry, it comes at last, and the sinner, whether an individual or a nation, never escapes the doom. Meroz did not escape it.
Though the mills of God grind slowly,
Yet they grind exceeding small.
They ground Meroz to powder so small that nothing remains to mark the spot whereon it stood.
The curse meant something like that pronounced by Joshua upon the man who should rebuild Jericho—that he should lose all his children between the laying of the foundation and the setting-up of the gates. In one respect at least Deborah’s malediction has not failed of its effect; her song has made the very name of this township a byword for ever. Meroz, for the Jewish people and for all students of the Bible, is a word that can never be mentioned without calling up associations of ignoble and cowardly inactivity. Yet the real curse of Meroz is far deeper; it consists in the deterioration of character that comes to the man who ignores duty; it consists in the pitiable retrospect of a life that ought to have been filled with goodness, but has presented to God and man “nothing but leaves”; it consists in the self-condemnation and self-contempt which come in the hour when a man is forced to face his own soul and to know what he is!1 [Note: J. H. Rushbrooke.]
Men think it is an awful sight
To see a soul just set adrift
On that drear voyage from whose night
The ominous shadows never lift;
But ’tis more awful to behold
A helpless infant newly born,
Whose little hands unconscious hold
The keys of darkness and of morn.
Mine held them once; I flung away
Those keys that might have open set
The golden sluices of the day,
But clutch the keys of darkness yet;
I hear the reapers singing go
Into God’s harvest: I, that might
With them have chosen, here below
Grope shuddering at the gates of night.
O glorious Youth, that once wast mine!
O high Ideal! all in vain
Ye enter at this ruined shrine
Whence worship ne’er shall rise again;
The bat and owl inhabit here,
The snake nests in the altar-stone,
The sacred vessels moulder near,
The image of the God is gone.2 [Note: Lowell.]
The curse of Meroz is the curse of uselessness; and the sources out of which it comes have already been named—cowardice and false humility and indolence. They are the stones piled upon the sepulchres of vigour and energy and work for God, whose crushing weight cannot be computed. Who shall roll away those stones? Nothing can do it but the power of Christ. The manhood that is touched by Him rises into life. When a man has understood the life and cross of Jesus, and really knows that he is redeemed and saved, his soul leaps up in love and wants to serve its Saviour; and then he is afraid of nobody; and however little his own strength may be, he wants to give it all; and the cords of his self-indulgence snap like cobwebs. Then he enters the new life of usefulness. And what a change it is! To be working with God, however humbly; to have part in that service which suns and stars, which angels and archangels, which strong and patient and holy men and women in all times have done; to be, in some small corner of the field, stout and brave and at last triumphant in our fight with lust and cruelty and falsehood, with want or woe or ignorance, with unbelief and scorn, with any of the enemies of God; to be distinctly on God’s side, though the weight of the work we do may be utterly inappreciable,—what a change it is when a poor, selfish, cowardly, fastidious, idle, human creature comes to this! Blessed is he that cometh to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty. There is no curse for him. No wounds that he may receive while he is fighting on that side can harm him. To fight there is itself to conquer, even though the victory comes through pain and death, as it came to Him under whom we fight, the Captain of our Salvation, Jesus Christ.
Baird (W.), Sermons at St. Gabriel’s Mission Church, 70.
Brooks (P.), The Candle of the Lord, 287.
Brown (C. J.), The Word of Life, 63.
Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women, and Children, 3rd Ser., 161.
Doney (C. G.), The Throne-Room of the Soul, 149.
Foster (J.), Works, iii. 369.
Hadden (R. H.), Sermons and Memoir, 139.
Henson (H. H.), Christ and the Nation, 73.
Ingram (A. F. W.), A Mission of the Spirit, 83.
Liddon (H. P.), University Sermons, 2nd Ser., 264.
Mayor (J. B.), The World’s Desire, 102.
Skrine (J. H.), A Goodly Heritage, 52.
Smith (W. M.), Giving a Man another Chance, 101.
Stuart (J.), Church and Home, 122.
Christian World Pulpit, xxxiv. 211 (Stuart); xlvi. 275 (Eyton); lxiv. 200 (MacColl); Ixviii. 180 (Williams); lxxi. 163 (Rushbrooke).
Church Pulpit Year Book, ii. 174; iii. 145; viii. 123.
Churchman’s Pulpit: Second Sunday after Trinity; x. 1 (Eyton), 3 (Williams)
Clergyman’s Magazine, viii. 289 (Dearden); New Ser., v. 359.
Contemporary Pulpit, 1st Ser., vi. 42 (Hook).
Treasury (New York), xvii. 82 (Hallock).