Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. THE SERVICE. This is characterised by the following points of merit:
1. Obedience to discipline. The two tribes and the half tribe are commended for obedience to their supreme commanders. Soldiers, servants, employes, all persons under authority, should recognise the duty of loyal obedience from the heart, and perform it
(a) conscientiously - "not with eye service as men pleasers;"
(b) diligently - working as laboriously as if for their own pleasure; and
2. Brotherly kindness. These tribes had not left their brethren. They had been foremost in conquering Canaan for them. Humanity, patriotism, and Christianity should lead us to labour unselfishly for the welfare of the world, our country, and fellow Christians.
3. Faithfulness to God. These tribes had "kept the charge of the commandment of the Lord their God." We have a charge from God to keep. Our duty is not confined to our relations with men; we have duties to God (Malachi 1:6). Even our duties to men should be discharged with a supreme regard to the will of God (Colossians 3:22), and our religious devotion should guide and inspire us in human duties.
II. THE REWARD. This is marked by the following features:
1. It is delayed till the service is complete. The Reubenites and their associates were the earliest tribes to have an inheritance apportioned to them; but they were the latest to enter into possession of it. Thus the first are last. We must not expect the rewards of faithfulness before our work is complete. It is wrong to desire to hasten to our heavenly reward at the neglect of earthly duty. The "rest which remaineth" is secure, though the enjoyment of it is delayed. The force of God's promises is not weakened by time.
2. It is so appointed as to satisfy the desires of those who receive it. The two tribes and the half tribe preferred to settle on the east of Jordan, and they were permitted to do so. As they chose for themselves they must take the consequences, whether for good or for ill. God allows us much liberty in shaping our own destinies. When He does not give us what we desire, the refusal is not arbitrary but merciful. In the end He will give us our heart's desire - either the thing we desire now, or something else to which He will incline our hearts, so that we shall desire that. As there are varieties of dispositions among Christians, so there will be differences in the heavenly reward.
3. It takes the form of rest and peaceful occupation. The army is disbanded. Warfare was a temporary necessity; it was not to be regarded as a constant occupation. Home life is most natural and most blessed by God. The spiritual warfare of Christians is only temporary. It will be followed by
(c) the home life of heaven. - W.F.A.
Joshua 22:1-9Joshua 22:1-9. We have seen the Reubenites and Gadites generously taking their part in the war for the conquest of Canaan, though they had already come into possession themselves of their assigned share on the other side of Jordan. In this way the solidarity of the nation was vindicated. Joshua now sends back these soldiers of their country to their own inheritance, and we see in the verses before us the reward of their fidelity to duty.
I. THEIR FIRST RECOMPENSE IS A MATERIAL ONE. They carry away a goodly share of the booty which accrued to Israel from its successful warfare. The man of God cannot always count upon this temporal reward. It may never be his. And yet it is certain that, as a general rule even in this life, the fulfilment of duty is a condition of prosperity. Evil gives only deceptive and evanescent joys; it is opposed to the Divine law, which must in the end prevail. It entails also terrible consequences. Is not all sensual indulgence a deadly and ruinous thing? Does not hatred kindle with its accursed torch fire and war, only to be quenched with blood? Does not the wicked dig the pit into which he himself falls (Psalm 7:15). Punishment may tarry. Penalty is slow footed, as Homer says, but it is guided by the unerring hand of Divine justice. The people who fear God and work righteousness are in the end always the blessed people, and the Psalmist rightly pronounces them happy.
II. The highest recompense is not however this material prosperity, BUT THE APPROVAL OF GOD. "Ye have kept," says Joshua to the Reubenites and Gadites, "all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you" (ver. 2). There can be no purer joy than to hear words like these from the Master's lips: "Well done, good and faithful servant, etc." (Matthew 25:21). They waken in the depths of our hearts the glad echo of an approving conscience. This is not the proud satisfaction of self righteousness; it is the joy of having rejoiced the heart of God; of having done something for the Saviour; of having in some measure responded to the love freely received.
III. OBEDIENCE LEADS TO OBEDIENCE; GOOD BEGETS GOOD. "The path of the just is as the shining light, shining more and more." So Joshua, in sending back these valiant soldiers of their country, gives them in parting some holy admonitions. We see that he judges them worthy to apprehend the law of God in its "true breadth and length," in the spirit and not in the letter. It is to be noted that he sums up the whole in that commandment which is ever new, and never to be abrogated, that which St. John calls the old and the new commandment (1 John 2:7): "Love the Lord your God, and walk in all his ways; keep his commandments, and cleave unto him and serve him with all your heart, and with all your soul" (ver. 5). Thus does each step or word in the Divine life prepare the way for a yet further advance, and so we go from strength to strength, from grace to grace. - E. DE P.
I. THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF TRIAL.
1. Isolation. The Reubenites and their associates had chosen an inheritance which would separate them from their brethren. There was danger lest the separation should injure their fidelity to God. The influence of Christian example and the sympathy of the Church are great aids to devotion. When these are lost special care is needed to prevent devotion from growing cold. This applies
(a) to those who go from their homes to business occupations which separate them from old religious associations,
(b) to those who leave their country for the colonies. etc.
2. Evil surroundings. These tribes were about to settle amongst a heathen population. In addition to the loss of the good example of their brethren's devotion, they would become liable to the injurious influence of bad associates. If duty calls us to live amongst those whose lives are unchristian we need to be watchful against the fatal influence of their example. Lot was injured by living in Sodom.
3. The cost of religious ordinances. Though these tribes established worship for themselves, they must have missed the good of the tabernacle services. They who live beyond the reach of such religious ordinances as they have found profitable in the past - as in lonely country places, or the backwoods of colonies - should be on their guard against the spiritual deadness which may result unless they are assiduous in private devotion. The proximity of a suitable place of worship should be a first consideration in the choice of an abode. Convenience, society, health, beauty of situation are too often considered to the neglect of this important requisite. Heads of families should know how much this affects the character and destinies of their children.
I. THE DUTY OF LOYALTY. The duty is illustrated in various phrases that it may be made clear and be well insisted on. This is no small matter. It should engage our chief attention. Several points are here included, viz.,
1. Devotion of heart. This is the root of true loyalty. It springs
(a) from personal love to God, and cleaving to Him;
(b) from the service of inward desire - serving with the heart;
(c) from thoroughness - serving with the whole heart.
2. Obedience in life. This is "to walk in all His ways." True loyalty does not confine itself to the secret desires of the heart. It comes out in the life. There it is not only seen in definite acts but in the general course of conduct. We are not to be faithful only in supreme moments, but to walk obediently - to continue a constant course of obedience.
3. Diligence in fulfilling God's commands.
(a) These tribes were to take heed. We need thought to consider what is God's will, and care to see that we are doing it.
(b) They were to keep God's commandments. The details of duty must be observed after we have cultivated the general spirit of devotion. - W.F.A.
I. ISRAEL HAS VIVIDLY IN REMEMBRANCE THE CONSEQUENCES OF ANY VIOLATION OF THE LAW OF GOD. Did not Achan the son of Zerah commit a trespass in the accursed thing, and was not the anger of the Lord kindled against all Israel? It was not Achan alone who perished because of his sin; the whole congregation suffered on his account (ver. 20). In this holy fear we see the vindication of the stern judgment of God. "Whom he loveth he chasteneth, that they may be made partakers of his holiness."
II. THE SECOND EXPLANATION OF THIS HEALTHY MORAL CONDITION IS GRATITUDE FOR BLESSINGS RECEIVED in the signal victory over the Canaanites, which the people felt they could never have achieved in their own unaided strength. Thus we need the discipline both of adversity and of prosperity in our spiritual education. Prosperity alone does but harden; adversity unrelieved would sink the soul in despair. God knows our proneness to wander, hence He chastises us to put us in mind of our sins and of His holiness. But He remembers that we are but dust. Hence He blends joy with sorrow in our changeful lives, and the two together work out in us the gracious purposes of eternal love. - E. DE P.
I. CONSIDER THE INCIDENT IN RELATION TO THE TRANS-JORDANIC TRIBES. They erected an altar of witness which was supposed by their brethren to be an altar of sacrifice, a rival to the altar at Shiloh, a mark of national secession and religious schism.
(1) We should be careful to avoid the appearance of evil. These tribes had voluntarily chosen a position of isolation. They were now acting in a way which exposed their conduct to suspicion. It is our duty to prevent the misinterpretation of our conduct when possible
(a) lest quarrels be engendered;
(b) lest the name of God be dishonoured;
(c) lest the weak be hindered.
(2) We must expect sometimes to be misunderstood. There are persons who are always ready to give an evil interpretation to ambiguous actions. We must not refrain from doing right for fear of being misjudged. False judgment is a trial to be endured with patience and accepted as a means of discipline to humble us and drive us to the sympathy of God (1 Corinthians 4:3).
(3) A refuge from the misunderstanding of men may be found in the knowledge and sympathy of God. The suspected tribes appeal to the "Lord God of gods," who knows everything. When men misjudge, God sees the truth. It is better to be blamed by all the world and approved by god, than to win the world's approval at the expense of God's disapproval.
(4) We should explain our conduct when it is questioned by those in whose good opinion we are interested. The trans-Jordanic tribes made a full explanation of their motives in building the altar. The pride which disdains an explanation is
(a) foolish, for it injures ourselves;
(b) unjust, for it allows the world to suffer for a false impression; and
(c) ungenerous, since our brethren have a right to expect us to justify our conduct when this is possible.
II. CONSIDER THE INCIDENT IN RELATION TO THE TEN TRIBES. These tribes were hasty in judgment, but wise in conduct.
(1) Zeal for God's honour is always commendable. Phinehas and his friends feared dishonour to the name of God. It is well to be jealous for God's truth rather than for our private interest.
(2) We should be cautious of passing an adverse judgment on others. Phinehas was too hasty. Many are too ready to form an unfavourable opinion of the conduct of others. Charity should incline us to view this in the best light (1 Corinthians 13:7).
(3) Contentions often spring from mistakes. It is so in the wars of nations, in ecclesiastical differences, in personal quarrels.
(4) It is our duty to inquire well into the grounds of a quarrel before taking an active part on either side. The Israelites sent a deputation to their brethren. It is unjust to decide and act on the uncertain information of mere rumours. Before saying anything ill of a person we should endeavour to see the accused himself, and hear his explanation.
(5) We should frankly recognise our errors of judgment. The Israelites admitted their mistake. It is mean and unchristian to hold to a mistaken judgment from feelings of pride. The Christian should always work for peace (Matthew 5:9). - W.F.A.
Mark 8:18). Christ knows how prone we are to forgetfulness. He has therefore given us two great aids to memory - Holy Scripture and the sacraments. Nothing can ever take the place of the Scriptures. These alone give us the full story of redemption. But it was needful that that story should be brought before us also in a symbolic form, which should appeal vividly to the heart. Baptism and the Lord's Supper supply this necessity for the Church. "As often as ye eat this bread and drink this wine, ye do show the Lord's death till he come," says the Master (1 Corinthians 11:26). The bread which we break is the communion of the body of Christ, broken for our sins. The cup which we bless is the communion of His blood, shed for our offences. Thus does the Lord's Supper recall to us the sacrifice of Calvary, as the altar of the Reubenites and Gadites brought to their remembrance the tabernacle sacrifices. But they had not, and we have not, to offer for ourselves upon this altar of remembrance, for there can be no other sacrifice than that offered once for all upon the cross. The Mass, by its pretension to be a real sacrifice, belies the true meaning of the Eucharist. The church which celebrates it commits exactly the error into which the tribes beyond Jordan would have fallen, if they had presumed to offer upon their altar sacrifices which could be legitimately presented only upon the one altar of the nation. Let us be on our guard against materialising the sacraments, and so offering to God a worship which must be abhorrent to Him, since it seeks acceptance in virtue of another than the one efficient and perfect sacrifice. - E. DE P.
I. THE OBJECTS AIMED AT. The Israelites were proved to have been in error when they assumed that the erection of the altar was a sign of religious schism and tribal secession. On the contrary, it was intended to prevent those very evils.
(1) It was erected to preserve the unity of the nation. National unity is always a desirable end of patriotic efforts. It secures strength, mutual help, brotherly sympathy, and the means of progress. Christians should aim at restoring the unity of the Church; or, where this is not possible, at preventing further divisions. While the external unity of the Church is broken, oneness of spirit and oneness of aim should be bonds of common sympathy between Christians. It would be well if Christians could make it evident that their points of difference are far less important than that common ground of essential faith on which all are united. Less emphasis would then be given to the internal controversies of the Church, and more weight to the great conflict with sin and unbelief and the great mission to evangelise the world.
(2) The altar was erected to maintain the religious faith of the trans-Jordanic tribes. Religion is more important to a people than fertile lands and well-built cities. We make a poor exchange when we sacrifice privileges of worship for worldly convenience. Separation from the ordinances of religion endangers the faith of religion. It should be our first duty to see that religious wants are supplied
(a) for ourselves,
(b) for our families,
(c) for destitute places, such as newly built suburbs of great towns, outlying hamlets, the colonies, etc.
II. THE DANGER FEARED. The men who built the altar of witness thought that the national unity and religious faith were endangered.
(1) Separation from the other tribes was a source of danger. It is difficult to be faithful when we stand alone.
(2) Time would increase the danger. These men built the altar with a view to the future. The severest test of faithfulness is the trial of endurance. Christians rarely forsake Christ suddenly. Early impressions linger for a time and fade gradually; but they will fade unless they are renewed. We cannot maintain the faith of a life on the lessons of youth. For constant faith we need constant "means of grace."
(3) New generations would be less fortified against the danger. The altar was built chiefly for the sake of the children of the future. The Church can only be maintained by bringing the children into the places of the elders as these pass away. Children do not become Christians instinctively, or by the influence of the mere atmosphere of religion about them; they must be taught and trained; therefore the education of the young should be a primary object of Christian work.
III. THE MEANS EMPLOYED. An altar of witness was erected. This was not for sacrifice and worship, to rival that of the tabernacle, like the altars attached to the calves at Bethel and Dan (1 Kings 12:28, 29).
(1) It was simply a visible symbol.
(a) It was a symbol - truth is often suggested most clearly by parables and illustrations.
(b) It was visible. Truth should be made clear and striking.
(c) It was substantial. Truth should be established by solid evidence, not melted down into vapid sentiments.
(d) It was enduring. We should not be satisfied with superficial impressions, but aim at establishing an enduring faith.
(2) The Christian has altars of witness, e.g.,
(a) the Bible preserved to us through the dark ages,
(b) the institutions of the Church, baptism, the Lord's supper, and public worship;
(c) inwardly to the Christian, the indwelling Christ who is first our altar of sacrifice and then our altar of witness, bearing testimony to the fact that we are His, and one with his true Church by the Spirit He gives to us, and the fruits of this Spirit in our lives (Romans 8:9). - W.F.A.
I. THE INTENTION of the eastern tribes.
(1) To have a memorial of their unity in religious faith with their brethren across the river. Religious ceremonies were inseparably interwoven with the national life, so that to be refused a right to participate in the former would imply a denial of their claim to kinship. The Jordan might hereafter be regarded as a natural barrier of exclusion from the privileges of dwellers in the land of promise. When the Reubenites, etc., had proffered their request to be permitted to dwell on the east of the river, they had not perceived this possible difficulty so clearly, but now, after having trodden the promised land, and viewed the habitations of their brethren, they were seized with anxiety lest in after years they might be regarded as "aliens from the commonwealth of Israel." Their conduct exhibits a respect for God. Their chief care was not for horses or trophies of war, but for the preservation of a common interest in the worship of the true God, and all the advantages thereby secured. They feared the selfishness of the human heart. Men so often like to reserve to themselves peculiar honours and privileges, to be esteemed the only true people of the covenant. Brotherly love and sympathy are forgotten in the attempt to surround ourselves with walls of exclusiveness. And against this narrowing of the national bounds the altar was to be a continual guard, a silent yet eloquent and forcible "witness" to the brotherhood of all the tribes. And amongst Christians of today some such voice is not unneeded to remind us of our common interest in the "altar" (Hebrews 13:10), the cross of Christ, whereby we are made "one body."
(2) To prevent a lapse into idolatry on the part of their descendants. The altar would be a standing reminder of the commandment of God, which forbade the rearing of strange altars for sacrifice. These easterns showed a right sense of the importance of preserving the religion of their fathers, and of handing it down uncorrupted to remotest ages. If the knowledge of the true God vanished, then farewell to all prosperity! What a hint to parents! Men toil to gather wealth for their heirs, to found an estate, to perpetuate the family name; it is more important to perpetuate piety, to train up the children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. "The fear of the Lord" (ver. 25) is the choicest treasure which children can inherit, and apart from it riches do not prove a blessing. Religion and prosperity eventually go hand in hand. Statesmen, if wise, will seek to establish the throne in righteousness. Their aim will be that religion shall flourish in the land, not necessarily by direct enactments, but by removal of all restrictions to its progress. It is not our commerce, our art, our resources for war that constitute our strength or hope for the future, but love to God, the prevalence of honesty and integrity, peace and truth. We need not so much ascendancy over other nations as over ourselves, our own passions and prejudices, vices and errors.
(3) To secure the offerings of the proper sacrifices at the tabernacle. Not only rights were remembered, but consequent duties. The altar would ever call these tribes to attend to the performance of their obligations, not to neglect "the service of the Lord." Some of the people would have a long distance to travel, and might grow weary of providing for ceremonies celebrated at such a distance from their dwellings. What shall be the "witness" in each household, testifying to the duty incumbent upon its members to contribute of their substance to the support of God's cause? The Bible? The missionary box? And in our churches the first day of the week is a mute appeal, seconded by the gathering now and again around the table of the Lord.
II. THE INDIGNATION of the western tribes.
(1) Exhibited in a striking manner their jealousy for the Lord God. Though these brethren had been lately endangering their lives and strength on their behalf, marching at their head and capturing their places of abode, nevertheless this kindness does not excuse an after fault. Our gratitude must not blind us to derelictions on the part of our friends. It were mistaken love that hesitated to reprove error. Nor did the westerns delay, they were prompt in action to prepare to root out evil. They knew the value of early attention to it. A little water quenches a fire which, if allowed time to spread, will surpass the power of a flood to extinguish. Let us not say of any sin, "Is it not a little one?" Attack the disease at its commencement or it will defy all treatment! Better lose a limb than the whole body.
(2) Manifested the abiding impression produced by past events. Peor and its dreadful plague, Achan with the loss in battle and dire retribution exacted from the offender and his family, had written in letters of fire and blood the wrath of God against iniquity. The lessons were remembered. Punishment graves the commandment deep within the conscience. Well for us if the past is not forgotten, its events recorded not on the sands but on the rocks. The reasoning of the Israelites was clear. If two and a half tribes transgressed, surely it was to be feared that God would chastise the entire nation; perhaps blot it out from under heaven, since lie had in previous days manifested such severe displeasure at the defection of a few of the people. We cannot allow our brother to persevere in sin and ourselves remain unharmed. The contagion spreads. "Am I my brother's keeper?" is a foolish inquiry and a groundless plea.
(3) Rested on a misunderstanding. And so does much of the strife which prevails. It is frequently impossible for men to know all the reasons by which others are actuated, and a partial view is often unjust. We do not advocate false leniency, or a total suspension of judgment. In the sermon wherein our Lord gave the warning, "Judge not that ye be not judged," He also declared, "By their fruits ye shall know them." We are apt to be hasty in drawing our conclusions, and it is probable that concerning a brother's behaviour we are especially quick in rushing to an adverse judgment. If acquainted with all the circumstances we might praise where now we blame. Let us try to avoid putting uncharitable constructions upon each other's acts. Appearances deceive. In heaven the harmony of love will be perfect, for we shall know even as also we are known. No veil of flesh shall intercept the vision of the spirit. Every signal flashed is clearly deciphered in the pure light of the presence of God; there is no cloud, no haze, to mar the reflection of His glory.
III. THE MISUNDERSTANDING REMOVED.
(1) The right method was pursued by the complainants. Before proceeding to the arbitrament of the sword they resolved to send an influential deputation to remonstrate, and to seek to dissuade their brethren from the indulgence of idolatrous practices. They manifested their sincerity and affection by offering to provide settlements within the land of Palestine, if the eastern tribes were now repenting of having chosen an unclean possession (ver. 19). Such is the method of dealing with brethren whom we believe to be sinning against God. Inquire and expostulate! "If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault; if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother." Reformation is better than excommunication. Wisdom and affection concur in urging the adoption of such a course.
(2) The apparent offenders displayed similar reasonableness of spirit. They willingly explained what they had done; did not stand sullenly upon their rights, refusing to render reasons for their action. They did not ask what business their brethren had to interfere with them, "Who made you rulers and judges over us?' Their procedure conveys lessons for modern days. Peaceable overtures must be peaceably met, and even unjustifiable suspicion must be pardoned.
(3) The suspected altar became a pleasing object to all. The explanation was accepted, and the deputation, gratified with the answer they received, bore home a favourable account, and the dispute was amicably terminated. The end was even better than the beginning, for the affair reflected credit upon all concerned. God grant that all misapprehensions among believers may vanish with equal celerity and happiness! that no root of bitterness be allowed to spring up and trouble them. Nothing should delight us more than to be enabled to exonerate our brethren from blame. ]Discovery of their freedom from guilt is a sweet proof of the presence of God in our midst (v. 31).
CONCLUSION. This narration begets the inquiry whether we have any part in the Lord. Can any secret place of prayer, or any word or deed testify that the Lord is our God? The strongest union is formed by religious ties. Where families are thus united the bands of love axe indissolubly cemented. Have we a family altar, not material but spiritual, a witness to the Lord? May the lessons thus derived from an old book be indelibly stamped upon our hearts. - A.
I. THE INNOCENT CAUSE. The two and a half tribes were, as they explain, solicitous to keep in unity with Israel. The possibility of their being treated as outsiders weighed on them. The erection of an altar precisely the same in pattern with that in the tabernacle struck them as a means of embodying a testimony that they had enjoyed the same access to the sanctuary with their brethren on the west of Jordan. By weighty precepts, Moses had forbidden any multiplication of altars. One God, one worship, one people, was to be the rule: Levites in every tribe, sacrifice only in the central consecrated spot. They were alive to the sin of schism, and the wickedness of seceding from their people, and the thought of it does not enter their minds. They would have acted more wisely if they had consulted the priests first, explaining their desire and purpose. But their very innocence makes them neglect to take precautions against being misunderstood. So far from desiring to break, they are solicitous to keep the unity of Israel. And the altar which their brethren think will destroy was erected by them to keep it. Yet they are misunderstood. So shall we be, and so will others be by us. There is hardly a word we can speak but can carry two meanings, or an act we can do but can carry two aspects. And if we attempt by the avoidance of speech or action to escape misunderstanding the endeavour will be in vain. At the same time, the fact that a large proportion - say 75 per cent - of misunderstandings have an innocent cause should set us on our guard against the next thing we observe here, viz. -
II. A HASTY CONSTRUCTION PUT UPON IT. How discreditable was this haste to assume that the worst explanation was the truest! If any part of the community had proved their patriotism, brotherliness, their honour, and their faith, it was these unselfish warriors who had laboured so generously for the general well being. But haste always leaves its fair judgment at home. It argues from its fears, its temper, its prejudice, its suspicions. Judgment being a slow-moving thing, that does net come to conclusions quick enough for its purpose. And so here, instantly there is put upon this act the construction that it evinces a purpose of secession, first, from the religion, and, next, from the people of Israel. Israel is not the only community disposed to hasty and harsh constructions. There is in all of us a vile readiness to believe the worst of men; a certain disposition to chuckle over the discover, of what seems a fault; an evil suspicion, arrogating to itself peculiar wisdom, suggests always that the worst view must be true. Observe here, the hasty construction is not only miststaken but utterly mistaken. It has concluded the very opposite of the truth. And our hasty constructions are not more accurate. Let us be on our guard. The truth may be the very opposite of what on the first blush it appears to be. What seems presumptuous and unholy may spring from the deepest devoutness. Observe thirdly -
III. A SENSIBLE INQUIRY. Phinehas, the high priest, and the ten princes of the nine and a half tribes are sent first of all to ask, "What trespass is this that ye have committed?" Some cooler heads and calmer hearts have suggested that before civil war be entered on there should he, at least, an explanation sought. None can cavil at a suggestion so prudent and pertinent. The best men for such a task are sent, not with weapons of war, but with words of peace - words still hasty and suspicious, but yet spoken in love and with a desire for the right. Then, for the first time, the two and a half tribes learn the evil construction which might be put on their deed. And the surprise with which they receive the accusation, convince all of their innocence of the things of which they were accused. The simple inquiry was all that was necessary to get the most perfect satisfaction. How many misunderstandings would at once be billed if men had just the courage to ask a question! But the suspicion which hastily concludes the worst is generally wedded to the cowardice which dare not ask if its conclusions are right, and so misunderstandings endure. If in a friend there is that which pains you, ask himself why he does it. Let the inquiry be a respectful one. Let the priestly and princely part of your nature make it. Let it be direct and full. Let no fear of being suspected to be yourself uncharitable permit you to be uncharitable. "If thy brother sin against thee, go and tell him his fault, between thee and him alone." If there was more of the manliness that would expostulate, there would be more of the saintliness that could forgive. Lastly, observe that the inquiry leads to -
IV. A HAPPY TERMINATION. There was every probability of the misunderstanding having a most disastrous termination. What would have been the issue of such a war? To crush a third part of Israel, and that the most warlike portion, would probably have cost the lives of another third; and the remnant surviving would at once have been at the mercy of the remnants of the Canaanite still surviving, and able to form strong alliances with Phoenician and Philistine neighbours. The extinction of Israel neither more nor less trembled on the verge of probability through this misunderstanding. Blessed are the peacemakers. The inquiry elicits the most satisfactory facts. The momentary, doubt of their brethren's good faith passes away. Their confidence in their faith and patriotism is resumed; for many, many centuries mutual suspicion is destroyed, and Israel on both sides of Jordan is an undivided people. A little wisdom, a little delay in speech or action until knowledge becomes certainty, a brotherly approach to those who have offended us, might bring outmost hopeless misunderstandings to the same satisfactory end. - G.
Leviticus 17:8, 9; Deuteronomy 12.). The issue proved this suspicion to be groundless; and what seemed likely at first to lead to a serious breach in the religious unity of the nation ended in a signal manifestation of the presence of the "one Lord" in the midst of it (ver. 31). We see here -
I. A NOBLE EXAMPLE OF ZEAL FOR GOD AND FOR THE PURITY OF HIS WORSHIP. It was a true instinct that warned the leaders of the ten tribes of the danger of a rival altar on the other side of the Jordan. They saw how easily the river might become a cause of moral and spiritual separation, the geographical boundary a dividing line of conflicting sympathies and interests. A flame of holy indignation was kindled within them at the thought of the glory of Israel being thus turned to shame. Their zeal is shown
(1) in their instant resolution forcibly to arrest the evil at its very beginning (ver. 12). Though they had so lately ceased from war, they will at once take up arms again, even against their brethren and compatriots, rather than suffer this wickedness to be done.
(2) In the wise measures they adopt. They will hear and judge before they strike, and the dignity of the appointed court of inquiry (Phinehas and a representative prince from each of the tribes) indicates their sense of the solemnity of the crisis.
(3) In the earnestness of their remonstrance. Their words are somewhat overstrained (ver. 16). The slightest departure from the appointed order is to them an act of guilty rebellion.
(4) In the sense they have of the latent propensities of the people to idolatry, in spite of all the sad lessons of the past (ver. 17).
(5) In their readiness to suffer loss themselves by the narrowing of their own inheritance rather than this supposed evil should be done. All of which is greatly to their honour, inasmuch as it shows how true they were to their allegiance to the God of Israel, and how earnest their purpose to maintain the religious unity of the commonwealth.
II. A SUCCESSFUL ACT OF SELF VINDICATION. If the suspected tribes were rash in raising the altar without having first consulted the heads of the nation, and especially the high priest from whom the will of God was to be known, and without duly considering the aspect it might bear to their brethren on the other side of the river, yet they themselves were also wronged by this too hasty judgment on the meaning and motive of their deed. The honesty of their purpose is abundantly made manifest. Note
(1) the spirit in which they receive the remonstrance. This at once bespeaks the purity of their intent. It is a serious charge that is brought against them, but they meet it with no angry recrimination. There is surprise, but nothing like resentment. This, perhaps, not only quenched the arrow of rebuke, but turned it back upon the source from whence it came. "Innocence doth make false accusation blush," and the guilelessness of their bearing must have brought a feeling of shame to their accusers, for having so hastily condemned them. In nothing is the moral quality of a man indicated more than in the way in which he receives an unmerited rebuke.
(2) Their desire to approve themselves to their brethren, as well as to Him who knew what was in their hearts. "The Lord God of gods, he knoweth, and Israel he shall know" (ver. 22). No right feeling man will be indifferent to the good opinion of his fellow men.
(3) Their thorough religious sympathy with the leaders of the people. The building of the altar, instead of being meant as an act of revolt, was done "for fear of this very thing." We are reminded not only how possible it is to mistake men's motives, but how the same motive may prompt to actions that seem to be at variance. Formal differences and separations in the Church are not necessarily schism. They may be the outgrowth of that very loyalty to truth and conscience which is one of the main elements of its living unity. The principle that binds men in allegiance to Christ may be at the root of much that seems to separate them from one another. A truly upright spirit rejoices in spiritual uprightness that may assume forms widely different from its own; and that is the most Christian conscience that most respects the consciences of others.
(4) Their prudent regard to the possibilities of the future. Not as a substitute for the altar at Shiloh, but as the shadow and memorial of it, did they rear this altar; that their children, looking upon it, might never fail to claim their part and lot in the fellowship of Israel. The loyalty of a godly soul will always manifest itself in the desire and practical endeavour to hand down its own inheritance of blessing unimpaired to coming generations.
III. A GREAT CALAMITY AVERTED BY A POLICY OF MUTUAL FORBEARANCE. What might have been a disastrous feud was arrested at the beginning by a few frank outspoken words. Honesty of purpose on the one side detected and appreciated honesty of purpose on the other. The "soft answer turned away wrath." "Charity covered the multitude of sins." And thus the very altar that seemed likely to break the bond of the nation's unity, rather became a witness to it and a means of strengthening it. So may it ever be. The true cure for the discords of social life and of Church life lies in fidelity to conscience, tempered by the forbearance of love. "If thy brother trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between him and thee alone; if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother" (Matthew 18:15). "Let us not therefore judge one another any more; but judge this rather, that no man put a stumbling block or an occasion to fall in his brother's way" (Romans 14:18). - W.
I. GOD IS PRESENT IN THE MIDST OF HIS FAITHFUL PEOPLE. By the nature of things, God is present everywhere (Psalm 139:7-10). Yet there is a more intimate and revealed presence of God which is not universal, but which is the peculiar privilege of some, while to others it is denied. This consists in the outflow of sympathy, the exercise of special grace, the nearness of spiritual communion. Two persons can be locally near, and yet in thought and sympathy very distant from one another. Spiritual presence is conditioned not by space but by sympathy. When we are out of sympathy with God He is far from us. When we are one with Him in sympathy He is near. This is a real presence. God does not simply send blessings and breathe benedictions from a distance. He makes the bodies of His people a temple (1 Corinthians 6:9), and their hearts the home of His Spirit (John 14:23).
II. GOD'S PRESENCE IS A FACT OF GREAT INTEREST TO HIS PEOPLE. Phinehas expresses satisfaction in the recognition of God's presence.
(1) God's presence should be a source of blessing, since
(a) He is our father, and we are homeless without Him;
(b) He is the Almighty One, and we are full of need;
(c) He is the light and life of all things, and without Him we are in darkness and death, like a planet without its sun.
(2) God's presence is proved by experience to be a source of blessing, bestowing
The possession of all the treasures of the world without God would leave the soul poor indeed. His presence is a pearl of great price.
III. GOD'S PRESENCE CAN BE RECOGNISED BY THE CONDUCT OF HIS PEOPLE.
(1) God's presence is discernible. It is not for ever secret and hidden. Phinehas perceives the presence of the Lord. We do not always perceive it, but there are events which make it strikingly apparent. If we know how to recognise it, we need not be always asking, "Is the Lord among us or no?" but, like Hagar (Genesis 16:13) and Jacob (Genesis 28:16), we shall be surprised and satisfied with the manifestation of God in our midst.
(2) God's presence is manifested in the conduct of His people.
(a) It is not proved by our opinions: we may have very correct ideas about the nature and character of God while we are far from Him.
(b) It is not made manifest by our feelings: emotions are deceptive, and very strong religious feelings may be found in a very godless life.
(c) It is seen in conduct.
IV. THE CONDUCT WHICH PROVES THE PRESENCE OF GOD IS FAITHFULNESS IN HIS SERVICE. Phinehas perceives "that the Lord is among us, because ye have not committed this trespass against the Lord." Faithfulness in the service of God, and a consequent spirit of brotherly kindness and sympathy, such as that now manifested among the tribes of Israel, are good signs of the presence of God in a Church.
(1) His presence is the cause of fidelity. Our fidelity reveals His presence, but it does not secure it. He is present first, and inspires devotion, and binds His people together in united affection through their common devotion to Him.
(2) He must need depart from His people when they become unfaithful. No past enjoyment of God will secure His abiding presence. If God depart, though wealth and ease and numbers testify to apparent prosperity, we may exclaim, "Ichabod - the glory has departed." - W.F.A.