The Lord thy God turned the curse into a blessing.
Here a difficult question meets us. Was there any reality whatever in Balaam's curse! Or was it altogether a harmless thing — in fact, nothing at all? If there was nothing in it, why should it have been averted Why should it be said that God "would not hearken unto Balaam"? Why not let it be pronounced? The result would have shown that there was no power or reality in it. On the other hand, it is difficult to suppose that such power could reside in a curse, especially when spoken by such a man as Balaam. One thing is certain, that God Himself never did give false prophets power to curse. Could they, then, derive it from any other quarter? Why not from Satan? No creature is absolutely independent; all are instruments in the hands of another. If through grace we have been placed in the kingdom of light, then we are instruments in the hands of God. If we are in the kingdom of darkness, we can only he instruments in the hands of Satan; a curse and not a blessing to others. Now, heathenism is one great territory of Satan's power — one chief part of his kingdom of darkness. He reigns supreme there. We believe, then, that within the sphere of his kingdom of darkness Satan has power to employ false prophets as his instruments — has power to enable them to curse, and to fulfil their curse when pronounced. The conflict here, then, was not merely one between the king of Moab and Israel, but between the kingdom of light in Israel and the kingdom of darkness in Moab and Midian. Balaam's curse would have been the utterance of the power of darkness; but he was obliged, however reluctantly, to confess his impotency before God. It was an act of Divine power when God turned the curse into a blessing. It showed His watchful care and love towards His people. And what is it that God is accomplishing now by the gift of His son and the power of His grace, but turning the curse into a blessing? Oh, there is a widespread curse, which has long been resting upon this guilty world, the curse pronounced on man's disobedience; and what makes it so awful is, that it is a righteous curse. Wherever we look we see its tokens — man doomed to a life of weary labour, suffering from different kinds of sickness, and at last seized with the irresistible hand of death; so that St. Paul says, "The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now." But to the children of God this three-fold curse is changed by the grace of God into a blessing. Look at the lowest element of the curse, that of labour, according to the sentence, "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread." How wearisome is ceaseless toil in itself! But to the true Christian how different is toil and labour! He consecrates his powers to Him who has redeemed him with His precious blood! Or look at sickness. What is it but the visible reflection of a spiritual disease within? If the image of God had not been obliterated from the soul by sin there would have been no sickness or sorrow in the world. No miracle is exerted to exempt the Christian from this trial. But its nature is changed; there is no longer any curse in it. How many can bless God for it, painful as it may have been — can bless God for His sanctifying and sustaining power — for the near communion with Jesus which they then enjoyed — for the hallowed impressions made upon their souls; and, most of all, for the manifestations of God's faithfulness and tenderness — of His power and gentleness. But of all the elements of the curse the most manifest and the most awful is death — so universal in its reign — so tremendous in its power — so mysterious in its nature. We can scarcely stand by a dying bed without the question pressing itself upon our thoughts — oh, why this convulsion? Why this distressing and humiliating close to our life here? One answer can only be given — It is because of sin. "Death passed upon all men in that all have sinned." To the Christian its sting is drawn. It is but the rending of the veil which separates his soul from the visible presence of his Redeemer.
The Lord thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp. I.
AN INSTRUCTIVE COMPARISON. The Church of God is in many respects comparable to a camp.
1. It is a camp for separation. We are crusaders, and are separated from the mass for the service of the Cross which we bear on our hearts. We are in an enemy's country, and we must keep ourselves to ourselves very much, or else we shall certainly fail of that holy military discipline which the Captain of our salvation would have us strictly enforce.
2. It is a camp, because it is on the defensive.
3. It is a camp, especially, because it is always assailing the powers of darkness. We have a world to conquer, and we cannot afford to loiter. We have a kingdom to set up for the Lord of hosts, and we must not sleep, for the adversaries of the Lord are ruing. We are an army, sworn to war against the Canaanites of error and sin, to cast down their walled cities, to break their idols, and to cut down their groves.
4. It is a camp, because we are on the march. We ought to be advancing in grace, in knowledge, in earnestness, in holiness, in usefulness, and if not we scarcely realise the figure of a camp.
5. Yet, once more, no doubt, a camp, as formed for temporary purposes, was a token of the Church; for although the Church stands still and abides, yet in her individual members she is subject to the same law of decay, and death, and change as the rest of the world. Soon shall the camp cease, and the soldiers become citizens, and the tents be exchanged for mansions.
II. A SPECIAL PRIVILEGE.
1. God is present in the camp of His people with a special presence of love. The Church is the garden of the Lord, His paradise. Where is a father most at home but with his children?
2. God is present in the camp of His people with a special presence of observation. He sees all things; but His eyes are, in the first place, fixed on His Church. With burning glance He searches the very heart of professors.
3. The peculiar privilege of Israel is to have a special presence of salvation. "The Lord thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp to deliver thee." God is with His people, to help them in their times of trouble, to rescue them out of danger, to answer their cries in their necessity, to save them in the hour of temptation.
4. The Lord is with the camp of His" people, as a special presence for victory.
5. It is a special presence in covenant. "The Lord thy God.
III. A CORRESPONDING CONDUCT.
1. This rule, that the camp be holy, applies to the commonest places wherein we are found. The Holy Spirit arrays you in the white raiment of holiness, that you may shine out bright and clear and distinct before the sons of men.
2. While this holiness pertained to their commonest things, it was also ordered that every unclean thing was to be put from them. Let us come continually to the washing place — even to the fountain opened. Let us beseech the cleansing Spirit to operate as with fire, and burn His purifying way through and through our souls.
3. Note well the fearful warning which is added. If there be in the camp an unclean thing tolerated and delighted in, and He see it — if it becomes conspicuous and grievous to Him, then the worst consequences will follow — "Lest He turn away from thee." Oh! what would happen to us if the Lord were to turn away from us as a Church?
Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped.
A Flemish artist was painting a picture when two friends noticed the high finish of a broom which was only an insignificant item in the composition. He told them he should spend three more days in working on the broom, intending to be mindful of detail in the general effect of his picture. Moses gave grand laws to the Israelites. His legislation as to the religious duties of the people is sublime. But he was not indifferent to regulations touching their common life, and bent his mind to the task of showing the minute as well as the vast in the order of right-doing. The word servant as used by Moses meant slave. Remembering what the Israelites had to endure in their Egyptian bondage, he had great sympathy with those who were held in servitude and compelled to work without remuneration. He could well understand that a man or woman in slavery, badly treated, and with no hope of an ameliorated lot, would, if possible, get away from the cruel owner and make a desperate rush for liberty. He did not blame the slave for stealing away from the owner. If technically there was theft in such an action, there was no dishonesty. The slaves who at one time escaped from southern plantations to Canada did no wrong. The masters suffered loss, but they lost what did not belong to them by any righteous law. There is a moral and spiritual application of this. Many people are in slavery. It is true they have not lost their civil liberty; they have not been sold in any slave market; they know nothing of literal chains, scourges, and labour for which there is no payment. They are proud of the freedom which is one of the glories of their native land. But they are slaves, for they are in bondage to evils which they have allowed to obtain mastery over their souls. There are powers in them which make them feeble for action when they would do good, and almost force them to transgression of Divine law. They have a right to break loose from the enthralling powers of sin, for sin holds nothing by legal proprietorship. Every sinner has a right to freedom, and is urged to rush to Jesus as a refuge from tyranny. The escaped slave was to be kept from the pursuer. When in the morning the master called for the slave, and there was no answer, and looked for him, but could not find him, he would conclude at once that the slave had gone away. Making inquiries, the master would ascertain the direction the fugitive had gone, and follow him until he found the place in which he was hiding. He would say to the elders: "My slave is here, and I must have him. Give him up to me." "No, no" was to be the reply; "we shall never give him up, and so long as these walls stand the poor man shall be kept out of your hands." We rejoice that our country has long been what the Israelitish village and city were to be to the escaped slave in the old time. The footprint of the slave on British soil is the certificate of his manumission. When the slaves of sin get loose from their bonds, and escape into Immanuel's land, they at once experience the blessedness there is in the liberty of the children of God. Christ never gives up to any old master those who have fled for refuge to His land; He loves them so much that He does not wish to have them out of His sight; and to defend them from the powers which would tear them back to sin He throws around them the awful grandeur and radiant blaze of His own perfections. The escaped slave was to be kindly treated. The man who had made a rush for freedom was not to rush into a new slavery. Those to whom he fled for refuge were not to take advantage of his necessities and use him in compulsory labour for their own profit; no service or tax was to be levied on him as the price of security from his old master. He was to be treated as a free Israelite, and to be allowed to live and work where he liked. The sinner who escapes from slavery to Immanuel's land is to be welcomed and cared for by members of the Church. He is to be recognised as having a claim to brotherly love, and to all the dignities and privileges that distinguish the Christian life. Even if members of the Church do look shyly on a newly converted sinner, Jesus does not, but bids him welcome to the palace of love, and opens to him immensities of blessing.
If thou shalt forbear to vow. I.
THE NATURE OF VOWS UNDER THE JEWISH DISPENSATION: which, as they are particularly voluntary engagements, we ought to observe when made, though we cannot infer a necessity of making them from the Divine law or the nature of things. It would seem but an ill consequence should we thus argue: God has commanded us in general to honour Him with our substance, and therefore we ought to make ourselves liable to His judgments, if in such a particular case, at such a particular time, and to such a particular degree we do it not. This I say would be but an ill consequence, though there may be some fit reasons assigned why such particular vows were used by good and pious men under the circumcision (Genesis 28:20
; Judges 11:20, 31
; 2 Samuel 15:7, 8
). Hence we observe that things consecrated or desecrated, though they are in a vulgar sense styled devoted, are not always reducible under the general nature of a vow, in the proper and scriptural sense of the word, and there seems to be a greater difference than is commonly apprehended between them. Thus much may suffice to determine the notion of vows as they are distinguished from other sacrifices under the Jewish dispensation; but it will still be more clear from some further reflections upon the lawful matter of them. For this we need only in general observe that everything which was not appropriated to God, which was not profaned, or which was not properly under the right or arbitrament of another, was the subject matter of them. From whence it follows that tenths in the first place were, under the Mosaic law, excluded from it, and that these could not be vowed to the Almighty, or be accepted by Him as a freely promised offering, because they were properly His before both by prescription and command. Again, nothing which was profaned or unclean, unless as it was redeemable, could be the matter of a vow. The heathens, for the generality, had more exalted notions than to think their gods would be gratified with such sacrifices as were held in contempt by themselves, and were in their kind of least estimation with them. Lastly, whatsoever was under the right and power of another was excluded from the matter of a vow, and therefore those who were subject to the authority of fathers or husbands were by the law not obliged to the performance of vows made without their consent during their right and power over them.
II. UNDER THE GOSPEL THE CHRISTIAN'S VOWS ARE COMPREHENDED UNDER THE SACRAMENTAL, AND THEREFORE PARTICULAR VOWS ARE NEITHER NECESSARY NOR EXPEDIENT. It may be proper to give a fit instance or two of particular vows in order to settle what are so. We are, in general, by our baptismal covenant, obliged to renounce all the sinful lusts of the flesh, and in consequence of this are obliged to make use of the means prescribed, suppose mortification by fasting. But should we by a solemn promise to God Almighty oblige ourselves to abstain such a number of days or hours, this circumstance nowhere enjoined would make it a particular vow. Again, we are obliged by our general vow to acts of charity and piety; but should we make a voluntary promise to God to bestow at such a future time such a certain sum to such an assigned use in view of such a desired blessing, this would also be a particular vow. And these are the vows which I undertake to prove neither necessary nor expedient. If they had been necessary, we might reasonably suppose that as our Saviour appointed that grand one for the initiation of His followers, He would also have prescribed the other, either by precept or practice, for the perfection of them, that so the use of them might have been derived by authority to the Christian Church, as it was to the Jews from the patriarchs. But we have no instance of this kind, either from our Saviour, His apostles, or followers, in the New Testament. And if we take them, under the general notion, as acts of gratitude, by which the good Christian promises to God the acknowledgment of a blessing by a suitable offering and oblation, though it is lawful and not absurd, as Calvin expresses it, to enter into such engagements, yet what advantage this method of acknowledgment has above others is not easily discerned. Should the pious Christian be made a peculiar favourite of heaven, and blessed with extraordinary advantages, either in prospect or possession, he may by his free gifts and offerings give a more noble and generous instance of his pious resentment, which under the law were always deemed the most acceptable sacrifices, and must recommend to the favour of the Almighty, who loveth a cheerful giver, whereas he, who lays a constraint upon himself, may give afterwards with an unwilling mind, and though he pays the vow, may not answer the end of it. And it is for these reasons, I presume, that the Jewish doctors discouraged and deterred their scholars from such kind of vows. But were they ever so expedient, the ill use which has been made of the doctrine of particular vows by the Church of Rome would be enough to give us a prejudice against them.
Thou mayest eat grapes.
Thus a privilege was granted, but one strictly limited. A man who was thirsty might help himself to as many grapes as he cared to eat, but he was not to take any away. A man who was hungry might pluck ears of corn, as the disciples of Jesus did, and eat the grains, but he was not to carry a sheaf from the field. In this manner property was guarded. This is in harmony with the biblical law of property generally honoured at the present time. Even those who denounce individual property in land and minerals, and wish to nationalise them, do not advocate such nationalisation without payment to the proprietors. If ownership in land were set aside, the poor might lose the farm or the field bequeathed for their benefit. If ownership in money or goods were set aside, the widow might lose her small annuity, and even have to give up the old watch she values as having belonged to her husband and the treasured curiosities brought by her sailor son from a foreign land. Still, the best property human beings possess is the mental and spiritual wealth they carry in their mind and heart. In other words, they may have history, biography, poetry, religion as the treasures of their inner life. The owners of property are not to be greedily selfish. Nothing was said by Moses to the proprietor or tenant of the vineyard or corn field, but much was implied. If he saw a man, woman, or child pulling a cluster of grapes, he was not to be in a tempest of wrath, as though some great wrong had been done him, or to threaten the intruder with a criminal action. The man was rather to be glad that out of his abundance thirsty and hungry wayfarers could have their needs so readily supplied. Those who have are to be generous to those who have not. Every rich man in the country who does not value his riches as power to do good is an enemy to himself and the country. The limitation of privilege in the vineyard and the corn field enjoined by Moses was an implied exhortation to industry. Grapes might be eaten in the vineyard, but no vessel was to be filled with them and carried away. Those who wanted grapes for the wine press were to grow grapes. Ears of corn might be plucked, but the sickle was not to be used in the field. Those who wanted corn to grind were to plough, to sow, and reap in their own fields; there was to be no greedy appropriation of the fruit for which other men had laboured. It is much better for human beings to act for themselves than indolently to lean on others. There is no food so good as that which a man earns with his own hands. Labour is the law of the spiritual as well as of the temporal sphere. Those who wish to attain a good degree in the Church, and to win the eulogiums pronounced on Christ's faithful servants, must work hard for themselves, that they may learn how to work hard for others. They must read much, think much, pray much. In one of his books Lord Beaconsfield represents a youth as saying, "I should like to be a great man." The counsel given him was: "You must nourish your mind with great thoughts." Those who wish to rank high in Christ's service must appropriate great thoughts, and make them their own by reflection and meditation. There is no way to usefulness except by ardent toil. It is only by setting ourselves to work that we shall be able to afford grapes and corn to famishing souls.
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