MacLaren Expositions Of Holy Scripture
It came to pass after this also, that the children of Moab, and the children of Ammon, and with them other beside the Ammonites, came against Jehoshaphat to battle.
O our God, wilt thou not judge them? for we have no might against this great company that cometh against us; neither know we what to do: but our eyes are upon thee.2 Chronicles
A STRANGE BATTLE
2 Chronicles 20:12.
A formidable combination of neighbouring nations, of which Moab and Ammon, the ancestral enemies of Judah, were the chief, was threatening Judah. Jehoshaphat, the king, was panic-stricken when he heard of the heavy war-cloud that was rolling on, ready to burst in thunder on his little kingdom. His first act was to muster the nation, not as a military levy but as suppliants, ‘to seek help of the Lord.’ The enemy was camping down by the banks of the Dead Sea, almost within striking distance of Jerusalem. It seemed a time for fighting, not for praying, but even at that critical moment, the king and the men, whom it might have appeared that plain duty called to arms, were gathered in the Temple, and, hampered by their wives and children, were praying. Would they not have done better if they had been sturdily marching through the wilderness of Judah to front their foes? Our text is the close and the climax of Jehoshaphat’s prayer, and, as the event proved, it was the most powerful weapon that could have been employed, for the rest of the chapter tells the strangest story of a campaign that was ever written. No sword was drawn. The army was marshalled, but Levites with their instruments of music, not fighters with their spears, led the van, and as ‘they began to sing and to praise,’ sudden panic laid hold on the invading force, who turned their arms against each other. So when Judah came to some rising ground, on which stood a watch-tower commanding a view over the savage grimness of ‘the wilderness,’ it saw a field of corpses, stark and stiff and silent. Three days were spent in securing the booty, and on the fourth, Jehoshaphat and his men ‘assembled themselves in the Valley of Blessing,’ and thence returned a joyous multitude praising God for the victory which had been won for them without their having struck a blow. The whole story may yield large lessons, seasonable at all times. We deal with it, rather than with the fragment of the narrative which we have taken as our text.
I. We see here the confidence of despair.
Jehoshaphat’s prayer had stayed itself on God’s self-revelation in history, and on His gift of the land to their fathers. It had pleaded that the enemy’s hostility was a poor ‘reward’ for Israel’s ancient forbearance, and now, with a burst of agony, it casts down before God, as it were, Judah’s desperate plight as outnumbered by the swarm of invaders and brought to their last shifts-’we have no might against this great company . . . neither know we what to do.’ But the very depth of despair sets them to climb to the height of trust. That is a mighty ‘But,’ which buckles into one sentence two such antitheses as confront us here. ‘We know not what to do, but our eyes are upon Thee’-blessed is the desperation which catches at God’s hand; firm is the trust which leaps from despair!
The helplessness is always a fact, though most of us manage to get along for the most part without discovering it. We are all outnumbered and overborne by the claims, duties, hindrances, sorrows, and entanglements of life. He is not the wisest of men who, facing all that life may bring and take away, all that it must bring and take away, knows no quiver of nameless fear, but jauntily professes himself ready for all that life can inflict. But there come moments in every life when the false security in which shallow souls wrap themselves ignobly is broken up, and then often a paroxysm of terror or misery grips a man, for which he has no anodyne, and his despair is as unreasonable as his security. The meaning of all circumstances that force our helplessness on us is to open to us Jehoshaphat’s refuge in his-’our eyes are upon Thee.’ We need to be driven by the crowds of foes and dangers around to look upwards. Our props are struck away that we may cling to God. The tree has its lateral branches hewed off that it may shoot up heavenward. When the valley is filled with mist and swathed in evening gloom, it is the time to lift our gaze to the peaks that glow in perpetual sunshine. Wise and happy shall we be if the sense of helplessness begets in us the energy of a desperate faith. For these two, distrust of self and glad confidence in God, are not opposites, as naked distrust and trust are, but are complementary. He does not turn his eyes to God who has not turned them on himself, and seen there nothing to which to cling, nothing on which to lean. Astronomers tell us that there are double stars revolving round one axis and forming a unity, of which the one is black and the other brilliant. Self-distrust and trust in God are thus knit together and are really one.
II. We see here the peaceful assurance of victory that attends on faith.
A flash of inspiration came to one of the Levitical singers who had, no doubt, been deeply moved and had unconsciously fitted himself for receiving it. Divinely breathed confidence illuminated his waiting spirit, and a great message of encouragement poured from his lips. His words heartened the host more than a hundred trumpets braying in their ears. How much one man who has drunk in God’s assurance of victory can do to send a thrill of his own courage through more timorous hearts! Courage is no less contagious than panic. This Levite becomes the commander of the army, and Jehoshaphat and his captains ‘bow their heads’ and accept his plan for to-morrow, hearing in his ringing accents a message from Jehovah. The instructions given and at once accepted are as unlike those of ordinary warfare as is the whole incident; for there is to be no sword drawn nor blow struck, but they are to ‘stand still and see the salvation of the Lord.’ They are told where to find the enemy and are bid to go forth in order of battle against them, and they are assured ‘that the battle is not theirs, but God’ s.’ No wonder that the message was hailed as from heaven, and put new heart into the host, or that, when the messenger’s voice ceased, his brother Levites broke into shrill praise as for a victory already won. With what calm, triumphant hearts the camp would sleep that night!
May we not take that inspired Levite’s message as one to ourselves in the midst of our many conflicts both in the outward life and in the inward? If we have truly grasped God’s hands, and are fighting for what is accordant with His will, we have a right to feel that ‘the battle is not ours but God’ s,’ and to be sure that therefore we shall conquer. Of course we are not to say to ourselves, ‘God will fight for us, and we need not strike a blow,’ Jehoshaphat’s example does not fit our case in that respect, and we may thank God that it does not. We have a better lot than to ‘stand still and see the salvation of God,’ for we are honoured by being allowed to share the stress of conflict and the glow of battle as well as in the shout of victory. But even in the struggles of outward life, and much more in those of our spiritual nature, every man who watches his own career will many a time have to recognise God’s hand, unaided by any act of his own, striking for him and giving him victory; and in the spiritual life every Christian man knows that his best moments have come from the initiation of the Spirit who ‘bloweth where He listeth.’ How often we have been surprised by God’s help; how often we have been quickened by God’s inbreathed Spirit, and have been taught that the passivity of faith draws to us greater blessings than the activity of effort! ‘They also serve who only stand and wait,’ and they also conquer who in quietness and confidence keep themselves still and let God work for them and in them. The first great blessing of trust in God is that we may be at peace on the eve of battle, and the second is that in every battle it is, in truth, not we that fight, but God who fights for and in us.
III. We learn here the best preparation for the conflict.
When the morning dawned, the array was set in order and the march begun, and a strange array it was. In the van marched the Temple singers singing words that are music to us still: ‘Give thanks unto the Lord, for His mercy endureth for ever,’ and behind them came the ranks of Judah, no doubt swelling the volume of melody, that startled the wild creatures of the wilderness, and perhaps travelled through the still morning as far as the camp of the enemy. The singers had no armour nor weapons. They were clad in ‘the beauty of holiness,’ the priestly dress, and for sword and spear they carried harps and timbrels. Our best weapons are like their equipment.
We are most likely to conquer if we lift up the voice of thanks for victory in advance, and go into the battle expecting to triumph, because we trust in God. The world’s expectation of success is too often a dream, a will-o’-the-wisp that tempts to bogs where the beguiled victim is choked, though even in the world it is often true; ‘screw your courage to the sticking point, and we’ll not fail.’ But faith, that is the expectation of success based on God’s help and inspiring to struggles for things dear to His heart, is wont to fulfil itself, and by bringing God into the fray, to secure the victory. A thankful heart not seldom brings into existence that for which it is thankful.
IV. We see here the victory and the praise for it.
The panic that laid hold on the enemy, and turned their swords against each other, was more natural in an undisciplined horde such as these irregular levies of ancient times, than it would be in a modern army. Once started, the infection would spread, so we need not wonder that by the time that Judah arrived on the field all was over. How often a like experience attends us! We quiver with apprehension of troubles that never attack us. We dread some impending battlefield, and when we reach it, Jehoshaphat’s surprise is repeated, ‘and, behold they were dead bodies, fallen to the earth.’ Delivered from foes and fears, Judah’s first impulse was to secure the booty, for they were keen after wealth, and their ‘faith’ was not very pure or elevating. But their last act was worthier, and fitly ended the strange campaign. They gathered in some wady among the grim cliffs of the wilderness of Judah, which broke the dreariness of that savage stretch of country with perhaps verdure and a brook, and there they ‘blessed the Lord.’ The chronicler gives a piece of popular etymology, in deriving the name, ‘the valley of blessing,’ from that morning’s worship. Perhaps the name was older than that, and was given from a feeling of the contrast between the waste wilderness, which in its gaunt sterility seemed an accursed land, and the glen which with its trees and stream was indeed a ‘valley of blessing.’ If so, the name would be doubly appropriate after that day’s experience. Be that as it may, here we have in vivid form the truth that all our struggles and fightings may end in a valley of blessing, which will ring with the praise of the God who fights for us. If we begin our warfare with an appeal to God, and with prayerful acknowledgment of our own impotence, we shall end it with thankful acknowledgment that we are ‘more than conquerors through Him that loved us’ and fought for us, and our choral song of praise will echo through the true Valley of Blessing, where no sound of enemies shall ever break the settled stillness, and the host of the redeemed, like that army of Judah, shall bear ‘psalteries and harps and trumpets,’ and shall need spear and sword no more at all for ever.
And they rose early in the morning, and went forth into the wilderness of Tekoa: and as they went forth, Jehoshaphat stood and said, Hear me, O Judah, and ye inhabitants of Jerusalem; Believe in the LORD your God, so shall ye be established; believe his prophets, so shall ye prosper.2 Chronicles
HOLDING FAST AND HELD FAST
2 Chronicles 20:20.
Certainly no stronger army ever went forth to victory than these Jews, who poured out of Jerusalem that morning with no weapon in all their ranks, and having for their van, not their picked men, but singers who ‘praised the beauty of holiness,’ and chanted the old hymn, ‘Give thanks unto the Lord, for His mercy endureth for ever.’ That was all that men had to do in the battle, for as the shrill song rose in the morning air ‘the Lord set liers in wait for the foe,’ and they turned their swords against one another, so that when Jehoshaphat and his troops came in sight of the enemy the battle was over and the field strewn with corpses-so great and swift is the power of devout recognition of God’s goodness and trust in His enduring mercy, even in the hour of extremest peril.
The exhortation in our text which is Jehoshaphat’s final word to his army, has, in the original, a beauty and emphasis that are incapable of being preserved in translation. There is a play of words which cannot be reproduced in another language, though the sentiment of it may be explained. The two expressions for ‘believing’ and ‘being established’ are two varying forms of the same root-word; and although we can only imitate the original clumsily in our language, we might translate in some such way as this: ‘Hold fast by the Lord your God, and you will be held fast,’ or ‘stay yourselves on Him and you will be stable.’ These attempts at reproducing the similarity of sound between the two verbs in the two clauses of our text, rude as they are, preserve what is lost, so far as regards form, in the English translation, though that is correct as to the meaning of the command and promise. If we note this connection of the two clauses we just come to the general principle which lies here, that the true source of steadfastness in character and conduct, of victory over temptation, and of standing fast in slippery places, is simple reliance, or, to use the New Testament word, ‘faith,’ ‘Believe and ye shall be established.’ Put out your hand and clasp Him, and He puts out His hand and steadies you. But all the steadfastness and strength come from the mighty Hand that is outstretched, not from the tremulous one that grasps it.
So, then, keeping to the words of my text, let me suggest to you the large lessons that this saying teaches us, in regard to three things, which I may put as being the object, the nature, and the issues of faith; or, in other words, to whom we are to cling, how we are to cling, and what the consequence of the clinging is.
I. To whom we must cling.
‘Stay yourselves on the Lord your God,’ Well, then, faith is not believing a number of theological articles, nor is it even accepting the truth of the Gospel as it lies in Jesus Christ, but it is accepting the Christ whom the truth of the Gospel reveals to us. And, although we have to come to Him through the word that declares what He is, and what He has done for us, the act of believing on Him is something that lies beyond the mere understanding of, or giving credence to, the message that tells us who He is and what He has done. A man may have not the ghost of a doubt or hesitation about one tittle of revealed truth, and if you were to cross-question him, could answer satisfactorily all the questions of an orthodox inquisitor, and yet there may not be one faintest flicker of faith in that man’s whole being, for all the correctness of his creed, and the comprehensiveness of it, too. Trust is more than assent. If it is a Person on whom our faith leans, then from that there follows clearly enough that the bond which binds us to Him must be something far warmer, far deeper, and far more under the control of our own will than the mere consent or assent of our brains to a set of revealed truths. ‘The Lord your God,’ and not even the Bible that tells you about Him; ‘the Lord your God,’ and not even the revealed truths that manifest Him, but Him as revealed by the truths-it is He that is the Object to which our faith clings.
Jehoshaphat, in the same breath in which he exhorted his people to ‘believe in the Lord, that they might be established,’ also said, ‘Believe His prophets, so shall ye prosper.’ The immediate reference, of course, was to the man who the day before had assured them of victory. But the wider truth suggested is, that the only way to get to God is through the word that speaks of Him, and which has come from the lips either of prophets or of the Son who has spoken more, and more sweetly and clearly, than all the prophets put together. If we are to believe God, we must believe the prophets that tell us of Him.
And then there is another suggestion that may be made. The Object of faith proposed to Judah is not only ‘the Lord,’ but ‘the Lord your God.’ I do not say that there can be no faith without the ‘appropriating’ action which takes the whole Godhead for mine, but I doubt very much whether there is any. And it seems to me that to a very large extent the difference between mere nominal, formal Christians and men who really are living by the power of faith in God as revealed in Jesus Christ, lies in that one little word, ‘the Lord your God.’ That a man shall put out a grasping hand, and say, ‘I take for my own-for my very own-the universal blessing, I claim as my possession that God of the spirits of all flesh, I believe that He does stand in a real individualising relation to me, and I to Him,’ is surely of the very essence of faith. There is no presumption, but the truest wisdom and lowliness in enclosing, if I may so say, a part of this great common for ours, and putting a hedge about it, as it were, and saying, ‘That is mine.’ We shall not have understood the sweetness and the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ until we have pointed and condensed the general declaration, ‘He so loved the world,’ into the individualising and appropriating one, ‘He loved me, and gave Himself for me.’ Oh! if we could only apply that process thoroughly to all the broad glorious words and promises of Scripture, and feel that the whole incidence of them was meant to fall upon us, one by one, and that just as the sun, up in the heavens there, sends all his beams into the tiniest daisy on the grass, as if there was nothing else in the whole world, but only its little petals to be smoothed out and opened, I think our Christianity would be more real, and we should have more blessings in our hands. God in Christ and I, the only two beings in the universe, and all His fullness mine, and all my weakness supported and supplemented by Him-that is the view that we should sometimes take. We should set ourselves apart from all mankind, and claim Him as our very own, and so be filled with the fullness of God.
This, then, is the Object of faith, a Person who is all mine and all yours too. The beam of light that falls on my eye falls on yours, and no man makes a sunbeam the smaller because he sees by it; and in like manner we may each possess the whole of God for our very own property.
II. How we cling.
The metaphor, I suppose, is more eloquent than all explanations of it. ‘Believe in the Lord’; hold fast by Him with a tight grip, continually renewed when it tends to slacken, as it surely will, and then you will be established.
We might run out into any number of figurative illustrations. Look at that little child beginning to learn to walk, how it fastens its little dimpled hands into its mother’s apron, and so the tiny tottering feet get a kind of steadfastness into them. Look at that man lying at the door of the Temple, who never had walked since his mother’s womb, and had lain there for forty years, with his poor weak ankles all atrophied by reason of their disuse. ‘He held Peter and John.’ Would not his grasp be tight? Would he not clasp their hands as his only stay? He had not become accustomed to the astounding miracle of walking, nor learned to balance himself and accomplish the still more astounding feat of standing steady. So he clutched at the two Apostles and was ‘established.’ Look at that man walking by a slippery path which he does not know, holding by the hand the guide who is able to direct and keep him up. See this other in some wild storm, with an arm round a steadfast tree-stem, to keep him from being blown over the precipice, how he clings like a limpet to a rock. And that is how we are to hold on to God, with what would be despair if it were not the perfection of confidence, with the clear sense that the only thing between us and ruin is the strong Hand that we clasp.
And what do we mean by clasping God? I mean making daily efforts to rivet our love on Him, and not to let the world, with all its delusive and cloying sweets, draw us away from Him. I mean continual and strenuous efforts to fix our thoughts upon Him, and not to allow the trivialities of life, or the claims of culture, or the necessities of our daily position so to absorb our minds as that thoughts of God are comparative strangers there, except, perhaps, sometimes on a Sunday, and now and then at the sleepy end, or the half-awake beginning, of a day. I mean continually repeated and strenuous efforts to cleave to Him by the submission of our will, letting Him ‘do what seemeth Him good,’ and not lifting ourselves up against Him, or perking our own inclinations, desires, and fancies in His face, as if we would induce Him to take them for His guides! And I mean that we should try to commit our way unto the Lord, ‘to rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him.’ The submissive will which cleaves to God’s commandments, the waiting heart that clings to His love, the regulated thoughts that embrace His truth, and the childlike confidence that commits its path to Him-these are the elements of that steadfast adherence to the Lord which shall not be in vain.
III. The blessed effects of this clinging to God.
‘So shall ye be established.’ That follows, as a matter of course. The only way to make light things stable is to fasten them to something that is stable. And the only way to put any kind of calmness and fixedness, and yet progress-stability in the midst of progress, and progress in the midst of stability-into our lives, is by keeping firm hold of God. If we grasp His hand, then a calm serenity will be ours. In the midst of changes, sorrows, losses, disappointments, we shall not be blown about here and there by furious winds of fortune, nor will the heavy currents of the river of life sweep us away. We shall have a holdfast and a mooring. And although, like some light-ship anchored in the Channel, we may heave up and down with the waves, we shall keep in the same place, and be steadfast in the midst of mobility, and wholesomely mobile although anchored in the one spot where there is safety. As the issue of faith, of this throwing the responsibility for ourselves upon God, there will be quietness of heart, and continuance and persistence in righteousness, and steadfastness of purpose and continuity of advancement in the divine life. ‘The law of the Lord is in his heart,’ says one of the Psalms, ‘none of his steps shall slide.’ The man who walks holding God’s hand can put down a firm foot, even when he is walking in slippery places. There will be decision, and strength, and persistence of continuous advance, in a life that derives its impulse and its motive power from communion with God in Jesus Christ.
There will be victory, not indeed after the fashion of that in this story before us. In it, of course, men had to do nothing but ‘stand still and see the salvation of God.’ That is the law for us, in regard to the initial blessings of acceptance, and forgiveness, and the communication of the divine life from above. We have to be simple recipients, and we have no co-operating share in that part of the work of our own salvation. But for the rest we have to help God. ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God that worketh in you.’ But none the less, ‘This is the victory that over-cometh the world, even our faith,’ and if we give heed to Jehoshaphat’s commandment, and go out to battle as his people did, with the love and trust of God in our hearts, then we shall come back as they did, laden with spoil, and shall name the place which was the field of conflict ‘the valley of blessing,’ and return to Jerusalem ‘with psalteries, and harps, and trumpets,’ and ‘God will give us rest from all our enemies round about us.’