The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And Benhadad the king of Syria gathered all his host together: and there were thirty and two kings with him, and horses, and chariots: and he went up and besieged Samaria, and warred against it.The Universal God
This was the profound mistake which the Syrian soldiers made. We fear that the whole world is making the same mistake. What, if on inquiry it should be proved that we have a partial religion, a religion useful here but useless there, an admirable contemplation for Sunday, but a grievous burden for Monday? What if we practically reverse the Syrian conception, and say that the Lord is God of the valleys but not God of the hills? That we want him in dark and dangerous places, but we can fight for ourselves in open places and on the tops of the breezy hills?
Is it an erroneous supposition that most of us have a God who is called in on special occasions, and that few of us live and move and have our being in a God that encloses and protects and trains to high purposes the whole life, body, soul, and spirit? Is ours a local or a universal God? Does he occupy the hills always, or the valleys alone, or does he fill all things with the fulness and silence of light?
There are those who confine him to the hills of speculation, but exclude him from the valleys of daily life. They are the intellectual patrons and flatterers of God. He is too great to be realised. He is the Supreme Thought, the Infinite Conception, the Unconditioned Absolute, and various other magnificent inanities. According to their view, he cannot be brought down to daily experience, or take any immediate part in the common progress of life. He is grand, but useless. He is glorious, but unapproachable. His sanctuary is on hills that cannot be climbed, or in clouds that cannot be entered; but he has no agency in the valleys.
Then there are those who recognise God in the valleys of trouble, but ignore him on the hills of strength and joy. They call him in professionally. He is kept for the hour of distress. They use religion as a night-bell which they can pull in times of exigency. He is sympathetic, pensive, helpful, but in the hour of progress and festival and conquest, he is neither needed nor called for. They are partially right, and in that very fact is their great danger. They make a convenience of God, and they can quote Scripture for the sake of the uses to which they put him. It is true that God is the God of the valleys. When the life-road suddenly dips into steep and perilous places, when it turns sharply into thick jungles where wild beasts roar and cruel birds scream in the hot wind; where it so narrows itself that only one can go forward at a time, and the kindest of strong friends must helplessly walk behind; when it terminates in the deep grave, without a singing bird in the air or a waft of summer flowers in the bitter wind; then God shines upon it mile by mile, and makes its end the starting point of an everlasting ascent. All this is true, but it is only part of the truth. God has to do as intimately with our prosperity as with our adversity. "The Lord God giveth wisdom: out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding. He layeth up sound wisdom for the righteous; he is a buckler to them that walk uprightly." Our breath is in our nostrils, and our light is the daily gift of God. "The strength of the hills" is God's, and his are the munitions of rocks.
It is the very glory of religion in its most intelligent conception that it comprehends and blesses the whole life. From this fact it draws one of its most powerful defensive arguments. Sometimes upon reading an attack upon the Christian faith we feel that its power wholly depends upon its mistaken estimate of the case with which it deals. If life were a short straight line, beginning and ending at points which the eye can clearly see; if it were an easy game which every mind can at once comprehend; if it were a competition in business, or a race on an open road and upon equal terms, nothing would be easier than to show the positive needlessness of the whole apparatus which is called religious. In order to make any infidel theory even seem to be good we must narrow and dwarf and impoverish the life which it seeks to rule and direct. We must make that life a straight line; we must ignore its mysteries, and exclude its future; we must silence its most urgent and penetrating inquiries; and having completed those acts of mutilation, it will be easy enough to invent a theory to meet its mean necessities.
What is this life for which any religion that is true has to provide? It is no easy riddle. It is easy enough to invent a theory or an outfit for one side of it; but we want a doctrine that will involve and ennoble its entirety. What is this life? What is its origin? Look at the impulses which excite it; add up into some nameable total the forces which operate upon it; and bring under one law the ambitions which lure or goad it into its most daring activities. Here is a hunger which no bread can satisfy. Here is an imagination which conquers the visible and longs to penetrate the unseen. In the breast is an eager suppliant that will not be forbidden to pray. What are those wondrous trials which strain the life to cruelty, and say they have come for its purification? Bar the gate never so surely, the black affliction will open it and come straight up to the house and enter its brightest rooms. Close the windows, yet the storm will batter upon them and pour its drenching floods upon the gladdest hearthstone. What is this life? It can curse and pray; it can descend to beasthood; it can fit itself for heaven; it can write poems in ink, build them in stone, paint them in colour: and it can drink away its genius and die in lunacy.
And what is the hereafter of this multiplied life? Does it go out like a spark? Does it perish like a dog? Does it burst like a bubble? Or does it go forward to new scenes, grow up into nobler power, study profounder questions, and culminate in the very holiness of God? These are some of the questions which the life asks of itself. These are monologues. These are not questions suggested from the outside, they come up out of the very centre of the soul, and are the very soul itself translated into anxious but mocking words.
Thus that which is emphatically false of the true religion is emphatically true of every religion that is false. The false religion is God of the hills but not God of the valleys. The superficial theory is excellent in fine weather, but useless in foul. It is pleasant in prosperity, it is helpless in adversity. It can swell our laughter, it cannot dry our tears. This is the proof of the true religion—that it encompasses with infinite sufficiency the whole life, is equally strong at every point. It can run with the footmen; it can keep pace with the horses; and it can subdue into peace the swellings of Jordan.
Almighty God we bless thee for all good men, strong and wise, pure and tender; men who have despised money when the exchange was not to be wrought except by sacrifice of conviction. We bless thee for the men who have held by their vineyards because of their fathers' memories. We thank thee for all elevating sentiment, all noble impulse, all high enthusiasm. Thou thyself hast blessed it, and though for a moment it has been baffled and persecuted and vanquished, it has returned in fuller vitality, it has shone with nobler splendour. We thank thee for all men who have kept alive in the nations a sense of what is due to God. We bless thee for every hint of the existence of thy throne; and we thank thee for the men of courage who in the nighttime and in the storm, in the great darkness and the horrible tempest, have said with steady voice, The Lord reigneth. Enable us to hear all good voices, and to answer them gladly and gratefully. May we never be amongst those who will take down the flag in the presence of the enemy. The Lord grant unto all standard-bearers life, health, and increasing power, that they may be able to speak the right word at the right time and in the right tone, and thus keep men, who would waver because of mental and spiritual fickleness, steady and consistent. We thank thee for all high examples; for all the sweet music of home that makes us love the fireside as a sacred altar. We bless thee for all the influences which lift us upward; for all prayers addressed to thy great throne in the name of Christ, which give us hope in despair, and which are returned to us as cordial and balm and tonic in the day of weakness and fear. We thank thee for all good books, for all true teaching, for all friendly counsel tending in an upward and heavenly direction. May we be supported unto the end; at the very last may we be more than conquerors, having strength to spare, and able to enjoy the conquest which by thy grace we have won. We mourn our fickleness and inconstancy, and our hesitation in presence of evil. We have not always been strong men. Sometimes we have listened as if we intended to understand the evil one, instead of answering him with fire and smiting him with the thunder of God. We have done the things we ought not to have done, we have left undone the things we ought to have done; but, still, that we know this to be a fact, and that we acknowledge it contritely is itself the beginning of a new and gladsome hope. We thank thee for the great Christ of God, who never faltered, who hardened his face that he might go to Jerusalem, who knew that he was to be baptised with a baptism of blood, but turned not aside because of fear. We bless thee for his struggle in Gethsemane—a struggle which expressed its agony in great drops of blood; we thank thee for the Nevertheless with which he won the victory. We bless thee for that second prayer of his in which he enlarged the first, and in which he plucked the sword from heaven with which he smote the foe. May we follow this blessed Christ, Emmanuel, Saviour of the world, who understood the mystery of blood, the power of sacrifice, and the glorious significance of the cross. He endured the cross, despising the shame; he was despised and rejected of men; but he never left the throne, or forswore his cause. O that we may follow him, and be like him, and repeat his life according to the measure of our capacity and the quality of our spirit. The Lord hear us, and astonish us with great replies! Amen.