The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Now the sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel, (for he was the firstborn; but, forasmuch as he defiled his father's bed, his birthright was given unto the sons of Joseph the son of Israel: and the genealogy is not to be reckoned after the birthright.Gaps In History—Painful Memories—Agonistic Prayer—intellectual Sins
1 Chronicles 5
This chapter treats of the tribes east of Jordan, Reuben, Gad, and half Manasseh, with short notices of their conquest and their final captivity. At the very opening of the chapter we come upon the well-assured doctrine, that the highest privileges may be transferred to other than the original and legitimate lines. Men hold their great influence only so long as they continue their noble behaviour. Reuben was the firstborn, and therefore entitled to honours and enjoyments of a peculiar kind, but because of a great sin, he dispossessed himself of the rights of the firstborn, and those rights were transferred to Joseph as to their substantial value. Joseph, or the sons of Joseph, did not occupy the first place in the lists of the tribes, but they succeeded to all that was really valuable in the primogeniture. What that was is clearly set forth in Deuteronomy 21:15-17. The incident is worth dwelling upon, only because it elucidates a special phase of divine government. God is not bound by arbitrary laws. Primogeniture can be changed in the court of heaven. Reuben may have said that whatever events transpired, he would still be the firstborn of Israel; believing this he might give rein to his passions, and withhold nothing from the flame of his desire; but God distinctly taught him that there is a law above law, that all human institutions are subject to the law and criticism of righteousness, and that conduct is the only absolute guarantee of real and enduring primogeniture. A melancholy thing indeed that Reuben should be the firstborn, and yet that one born after him should bear the blessing which was due to the eldest son. In this case Reuben had a right to a double inheritance, but that right was transferred to Joseph. There is a theory which expresses itself in the much-abused words, "Once in grace, always in grace." That may be a glorious truth, but everything depends upon what is meant by being "in grace." They are not all Israel that are called Israel. A momentary experience of the goodness of God may not be regarded as constituting newness of spirit and of life. We can only prove that we were once in grace by continually living in grace. Any vital breach in the continuance will throw discredit upon the supposed reality of the origin. Connected with such transfers of dignity and power, there cannot but be a measure of melancholy in the experience of those who are called upon to sustain the lapse of primogeniture. Joseph and Judah, who divided between them the pre-eminence and the rights of Reuben, cannot but have felt that their honour was due to their brother's disgrace. Elisha took up a mantle that had never been stained, but, alas! many are called upon to succeed Iscariots in the noblest apostleships of life. But whilst there is a measure of melancholy, it should be balanced by increase of spiritual vigilance. "Be sober and watch unto the end." "Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall." "Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe."
In the eighth verse we come upon the name of Bela, whose descent is traced like that of Berrah, but through fewer names. This circumstance is only worthy of notice because intermediate names are often omitted in genealogies. A notable example is given in the book of Joshua (Joshua 7:18); we read—"Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah"—but in verse twenty-four we simply read—"Achan the son of Zerah." Here we are reminded that there are many gaps in history. As much may be learnt from omissions as from distinctly registered particulars. Often in history we seem to step from one mountain top to another without taking note of the localities which lie between. Even the life of a man may be summarised by two or three striking events. On many a tombstone, indeed, the longest life is simply indicated by the words "born" and "died." What then can be made of history? As a matter of fact, history can never be exhaustively written. It may be questioned whether any man who has lived a long and active life can really write his whole biography. Let him take what pains he may he will be conscious that much has been left out; even where a diary has been sedulously kept, it can tell but little of motive, purpose, desire, and all the mysterious operations of the soul; the spirit will not be imprisoned in words; after the words have expended their whole strength in embodying life there is something in life which will not condescend to be represented in symbols or uttered in signs. Let us continually remind ourselves of the lesson we have had so much occasion to set forth, that two or three famed sons in a family do not blot out all the sweet life, the gentle piety, the unobtrusive industry, and the anxious prayers of many an unknown member of the household. We belong to one another. We cannot always trace the influences which have culminated in eminence and power. Be assured that how famous soever any man may be there is a vital defect in his character in so far as he fails to remember all that made his home the beginning of his greatness.
In the ninth verse we come upon the subject of painful memories—
"And eastward he inhabited unto the entering in of the wilderness from the river Euphrates; because their cattle were multiplied in the land of Gilead." (1Chronicles 5:9).
As their flocks and herds increased the Reubenites extended eastward even to the great desert lying between the Euphrates and Syria. This desert was inscribed all over with recollections which could not but be painful to the restored exiles. This desert has been described as a vast wedge interposed between the valley of the Euphrates and the fertile strip of coast along the Mediterranean which effectually shuts off Palestine from the rest of western Asia. The point to be remembered is that the desert had been the theatre of inexpressible suffering. Do we not ourselves often come upon old places, old acquaintanceships which reminds us of desert experiences, of graves dug in our hearts, of losses which no prosperity can repair? To some of us the world is full of frightful places. We remember where the holy vow was broken, where our best strength utterly gave way, where the word of blasphemy was forced out of our lips, where we were tempted to give up faith in prayer. On the other hand, there are places clothed with immortal beauty, and upon these our memory should dwell with holy delight. We remember the very spot at which we gave up our whole heart to the Son of God: we see quite vividly the green field or the flowery lane where we plighted the word of troth which only death can violate: we see the old quiet grey homestead associated with joy, festival, and gladness of every tone and hue: sometimes we long to go back to these old places which now by their very venerableness have become personal sanctuaries. Blessed be God, it is even now in the power of every man to create one holy place in the desert of life, for at this very moment the sinner may repent, and in this very place he may begin to pray. Do not let us yield to the temptation always to be dwelling upon the deserts, the churchyards, the stony places of the past; such exercises of memory may but becloud and discourage the heart: rather turn to the brighter scenes and take courage to regard them as merely symbolical of a greater glory yet to come. Truly to some travellers the way seems to have been all wilderness, or the path has lain through a very battlefield, so fierce has been life's controversies and so many have been life's losses. This bitter experience is never to be ignored, for by ignoring we should simply lose influence with those whom we attempt to comfort: better show that we are fully aware of the extent and desolateness of the desert before we point out the beauty and the accessibleness of the garden of God.
In verse twenty we see an instance of what may be described as agonistic prayer:
"And they were helped against them, and the Hagarites were delivered into their hand, and all that were with them: for they cried to God in the battle, and he was intreated of them; because they put their trust in him." (1Chronicles 5:20).
It is beautiful to notice how in Bible times natural events were regarded as closely associated with the hand of God. Nothing was looked upon as unrelated or self-contained. On the contrary, everything was traced to the immediate action and purpose of God. Here we have men of valour, bearing shield and sword and drawing bow, and trained warfare, nearly fifty thousand strong, and yet they turn the very battlefield into a house of prayer. Circumstances give to prayer its real significance. Sometimes too we can only pray in mere words, for our feeling is not always excited and ardent. Sabbath after Sabbath we may assemble together, and in quietness hardly distinguishable from indifference, we may go through our religious exercises; but suddenly there comes an epidemic, a war, a family bereavement, a national crisis, or some other event which profoundly affects our feeling, then the very words which but a week ago were uttered without emotion express the keen agony of our souls. For our comfort let us remember that God knows all the circumstances under which we pray, and that the quietness of our utterance need not in any degree impair the earnestness of our meaning. On the other hand, do not let us suppose that indifference is a sign of piety. So prone is the heart to forget God, and to turn away from the discipline of life, that we need continual exhortation not to yield to the sleep which would first overcome us, and then deepen into death.
Verse twenty-five relates to the transgressions of the people against God, whose hearts went out after the idols of the land. If we turn to the Book of Kings, we shall be surprised to find how the fatal sin of Israel was often of an intellectual kind, as distinguished from the baser iniquities, which corrupt and overthrow the soul. There were three instances in which the intellectual sin of Israel was conspicuous: (1) in the worship of the holy places; (2) in adoration of the heavenly bodies, and the productive powers of nature; (3) in the practice of magic and divination. Here we find nothing of adultery, drunkenness, theft, or licentiousness of any kind. Here, indeed, is a species of intellectual elevation and refinement; certainly there is nothing coarse and brutish in the usual sense of the terms. Instances of this kind have surely a direct bearing upon ourselves. There are sins and sins. One man is simply a sinner of the coarse type, a criminal seen and known of all men and cast out by society; another man sins intellectually, that is to say, he mentally deposes God, and more or less secretly endeavours to live without him; never breaking any of the great social commandments, and thereby forfeiting social confidence, yet all the while committing the sin against the Holy Ghost. In this way men write their own bibles, invent their own deities, banish from the mind all the old orthodoxies, and in hidden vanity walk after the counsel of their own hearts. In all these matters God alone can judge; we only know crime, we have not penetration keen enough to penetrate the disguises of sin. We may however exhort one another to be careful lest we indulge sin under the pretence that we cannot justly be charged with crime. The whole question in its highest aspect relates to the condition of the heart. "The Lord looketh on the heart." "As a man thinketh in his heart so is he." "Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me." "God be merciful to me a sinner." O thou that lookest upon the heart and from whom nothing can be hidden, enter not into judgment with us, for in thy sight shall no flesh living be justified: show us our sin until we be ashamed of it, and lead us to the cross of thy Son, there to begin in brokenheartedness, the better, the eternal life.
For there fell down many slain, because the war was of God. And they dwelt in their steads until the captivity."Handfuls of Purpose,"
For All Gleaners
"For there fell down many slain, because the war was of God."—1Chronicles 5:22.
We should trace the explanation of victories.—There are victories which are but glittering defeats.—No victory is worth having that is not won by moral means, or that does not express a moral right.—Here we have the explanation in the words "the war was of God"; that is to say, it was a good war, or a war on behalf of right principles and right claims; a war which God approved, if not as to its method yet as to its end.—In the Old Testament the Lord is "a man of war."—Sometimes the people went to battle without him, and then they returned without spoil or song of joy; on other occasions they went with him and at his bidding, and they brought back with them banners unstained and spoil to which they were entitled.—All this is happily changed; war is becoming increasingly hated and dreaded. But there is another war which may be described as a war of God.—We wrestle against spiritual enemies; we are set in battle array against the highest forces of darkness.—If we have invented our own armour, or have manufactured our own piety, or have ordered the battle according to our own supposed genius in war, the eventide will find us overthrown, humiliated, and hopeless.—Are we going a-warfare at our own charges? Then verily we shall play the fool and bring home with us a fool's reward.—When a man fights against himself, in his lusts, passions, and unauthorised aspirations, he fights a war approved of God, and if he fight that war in the name of God he shall be none other than a victor at the close. When a man fights for the poor, the oppressed, the helpless, he is engaged in a battle over which God holds the banner, and the holding of that banner is the guarantee of triumph, and in that triumph there shall be no stain of malice or selfishness or earthly-mindedness.—We must not limit our wars to ourselves.—There are wars in which we can render valuable assistance in which other men are engaged.—Let the rich man go to the side of the poor man in fighting a battle with poverty, and help him to win in the strife.—We can easily find out wars in which we can render assistance if we look for them, and give ourselves zealously to the cause of human service.—They that be with us when we are good are more than all that can be against us.—If we fight in our own strength our endeavours will be wasted, but if we deliver every blow in the name and strength of God many will be slain.—Slay your sins, your passions, your animosities, your under-selves, and rise to the dignity to which God has called you as his soldiers.—Endure hardness as a good soldier: fight the good fight of faith: be not afraid of the enemy.—O thou poor struggler, God will bring thee to victory, to honour, and to rest, if thou wilt put thy cause into his hands.