The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Then we turned, and took our journey into the wilderness by the way of the Red sea, as the LORD spake unto me: and we compassed mount Seir many days.Providential Lines
There is a remarkable expression in the fifth verse—"because." The same expression occurs in the ninth verse—"because." The same word occurs in the nineteenth verse—"because." Yet it is the infinite God who speaks and puts himself in the position of one who would explain to his creatures his reasons for making certain allotments. Instead of speaking as one might suppose the Eternal Majesty of the Universe to speak, he seems to place himself upon a level with men, and to tell them why they are not to do certain things. For example: The command was that Israel was not to interfere with the children of Esau:—"Meddle not with them; for I will not give you of their land, no, not so much as a foot breadth; because I have given mount Seir unto Esau for a possession" (Deuteronomy 2:5). That mount belongs to another man. The law of proprietorship must be recognised. We must have social rights, or we shall not have social securities. Very particular is the direction. Read the words again,—"No, not so much as a foot breadth." It is upon such fine lines that such great rights are based. If Jacob, in the person of the children of Israel, could have put one foot upon Mount Seir, he soon would have put the other foot there too, and Esau might have been dispossessed. The only way for some men to keep themselves honest is to have nothing to do with the other side. A footprint may some day be turned into a boundary: a finger-print may one day be pointed to as a right. "Touch not, taste not, handle not,"—but keep away absolutely, in the very innermost thought of the mind, from the things that are not yours. The same law holds good in regard to the Moabites:—"Distress not the Moabites, neither contend with them in battle: for I will not give thee of their land for a possession; because I have given Ar unto the children of Lot for a possession" (Deuteronomy 2:9). The same law related to the children of Ammon:—"Distress them not, nor meddle with them: for I will not give thee of the land of the children of Ammon any possession; because"—then comes the reason (Deuteronomy 2:19). God has taken care of every one of us in life. There is a little portion for the very smallest of us—one little handful of bread for the poorest man, one little ewe lamb for every life; and God knows what he has given and to whom he has given it, and he keeps the title-deeds in his own heavens; and he would look more after our property and rights if we would allow him to do so. Could we but give ourselves heart and soul to the kingdom of heaven, the doing of right, the continual education of the soul in truth, holiness, and nobility, God would see that every right was protected; and when we come to measure the estate which we thought to be but small, we may find that the boundaries have been enlarged and that we have more than we supposed we had. He is good unto all them that call upon him. He knows the measure of our hunger, and never did God send away from his table the unsatisfied appetite which he himself had created.
Contrast these commandments with the ten words which were given in Exodus—say, for example,—"Thou shalt not steal;" "Thou shalt not commit adultery;" "Thou shalt not bear false witness." Where are the reasons there? Who can find a "because" following such laws? Yet the Lord could not rear virtue upon a command. "Thou shalt not steal"—never made an honest man. "Thou shalt not" is a proper enough form of representation of the idea, if it be understood in its spiritual relations. The word is much grander than "shalt" or "shalt not." If a man were to say,—I do not steal because I have been told not to steal,—he is a thief in his heart, and he is stealing all day; his meaning is:—Had I not been told not to steal, I would steal at once, but being told not to steal I do not steal He does not know how much he is deceiving himself. Where is the honesty? But change the form of expression, and light comes above all the lightning of Sinai:—"Thou wilt not steal;" "Thou wilt not bear false witness;" and throughout the commandments, "Thou wilt," "Thou wilt not;"—the meaning being, that if the spirit of obedience is in the heart and the spirit in harmony with God, the man will not do wrong, will do right,— by no effort, not because a prize is before him, or a whip is being laid upon his back in cruel laceration; but the man will be so much like God, will live so deeply and truly in the Spirit of God, that he will not do things that are wrong, that he will do things that are right: he will keep the Sabbath day, and he will not covet his neighbour's goods. In our early education, we need the "thou shalt not" of verbal prohibition, because at a certain period we could not understand spiritual reasoning; for a time, therefore, we live under what may be called arbitrary law—that is, law which vindicates itself solely by the majesty of the law-giver, and will not condescend to reasoning or explanation. In the progress of our education, crude words such as "Thou shalt" and "Thou shalt not" fall out of our commerce with heaven, and we know the meaning of the divine speech which says,—"Thou wilt honour thy father and thy mother;" "Thou wilt remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy;" "Thou wilt do no murder." So, commandment is turned into revelation: at last we come to see that God was not speaking arbitrarily, or laying down small boundaries without stooping to give us explanations, but was anticipating the greater word—"Thou wilt," "Thou wilt not." The good tree will bring forth good fruit.
A very tender word is found in the seventh verse:—"For the Lord thy God hath blessed thee in all the works of thy hand: he knoweth thy walking through this great wilderness: these forty years the Lord thy God hath been with thee; thou hast lacked nothing." We may put down wordy debaters who have nothing to live upon but their own invention,—troubled by their own verbosity; but we cannot put down witnesses who testify what they have seen, known, and handled for a period of forty years. Time has a good deal to do with testimony; time enters very subtlely into all things human and mundane. Men may make a ladder in a very short time, but who can make a tree?—and how constantly we are mistaking a tree for a ladder, or a ladder for a tree! Time makes the tree; time makes character; time makes practical theology. Moses could say with emphasis at the end of forty years what he could only say with hopefulness at the beginning. The Christian witness is forty years old; forty years have men tried the Christian doctrine and the Christian consolation, and at the end of forty years their witness is stronger, tenderer, larger than at the first. Possibly they may know much or they may know nothing about theological terms and theological controversies; but they know the vitality of the matter—the inner grace and solace and inspiration,—and they are strong in testimony that, but for a doctrine heaven-descended and heaven-inspired, they would long ago have given up life in utterest despair. So we have to deal with facts now as well as arguments. A man rises and says: But for this Christian doctrine which is written in the Christian Scriptures, I should have been the worst of men, the unhappiest of men: explain it how you may, I am so constituted that I should have been a terror unto many, a shadow upon my own house, a plague to my own consciousness; but I have studied the Christian kingdom in its doctrine, legislation, and solace, and I have been enabled to receive Christ into my heart; and now, by the grace of God, I am what I am, and my life has in it the promise and the seal of a blessed immortality. Whatever did that for the man who is bearing witness is to be spoken of with respect. The Christian testimony, doctrine, or example never made immoral men. The men who profess this Christian guidance through the wilderness may not always have been what they ought to have been—they themselves will be swiftest witnesses in this matter as against themselves;—but no man who has tasted of this doctrine will be slow to confess that but for it his life would have been without a centre, without restfulness, without a purpose adequate to his faculties. This side of the Christian cause must never be neglected. Many men can be strong only upon this side, because they are not master of words, controversies, and counsels: they know next to nothing of the processes of evolution through which Christian argument has passed; but they say they know that after prayer their hands are stronger, their eyes keener of vision, their hearts tenderer in all sympathy. Any religion that will do that for any human creature is a religion well-deserving the noblest church that can be built to its genius.
The great leader who has lost so many of his followers becomes pathetic in the fourteenth verse, wherein he says, "All the generation of the men of war were wasted out from among the host." It is sad to live in a cemetery. It is sad to be the survivor of thousands of old comrades; the air is cold when they leave us; summer is itself but a cloud when our heart-companions are no more. To have lost them in noble strife is not the worst of the situation. We could bury them with honours; we could lay the colours of the army on their green graves and call the soldiers sleeping their last sleep "good knights of God;" but Moses had to look upon a different spectacle. That many fell in honourable war might be true enough; but four-and-twenty thousand of them were struck down by the javelin of God because of an outrage against the holiness of his law. God can do without his generals, captains, and leaders of hosts; God can do without every preacher he has; but he cannot do without his holiness, his purity, his infinite righteousness. God will handle the evil-doers: where all the opponents of Israel could do nothing, the Lord blew upon the host of the chosen, and by one plague four and-twenty thousand of them were swept from the land of the living. God does not want our patronage. Never does he say: They are generals of mine, great leaders, marvellous captains in controversy, and therefore I must spare them, though they be evil-hearted and their minds be filled with superstition and error. He can do without any creature he ever made, but he will not have the integrity of his throne impaired. But take the brighter view. Suppose all to have died in honourable conflict—brave, upright, honest men, gentle—as all strong men are, wise and good; and still time bears them down and causes them to disappear. The Church is always suffering losses in this way. Some whom we wish to live for ever live but a handful of days; men whom we thought essential to the Christian cause are taken away as if their presence upon earth were of no consequence. Herein is the wisdom of God and the righteousness of the Father. He will not encourage idolatry of any kind; he will have the truth resting upon itself; he insists that the Bible shall make its own way in the world. Whilst we are deeply thankful for annotation, we should be still more profoundly grateful for the Book which is annotated. We do not live upon the comments: we live upon the Book; as we do not live upon opinions respecting the bread, but upon the bread itself.
How will God make up for all these losses? He takes the case into his own hand. He will not put four-and-twenty thousand more men in the field: he will double the influence—or multiply the influence indefinitely—of those who are already engaged in his cause, representing and vindicating his kingdom. The twenty-fifth verse supplies the explanation and the proof:—"This day will I begin to put the dread of thee and the fear of thee upon the nations that are under the whole heaven, who shall hear report of thee, and shall tremble, and be in anguish because of thee." He will work spiritually. Instead of working through the sword and the battle, he will work through fear. He promised this in the Book of Exodus; in Exodus 15:15-16 we read,—"Then the dukes of Edom shall be amazed; the mighty men of Moab, trembling shall take hold upon them; all the inhabitants of Canaan shall melt away. Fear and dread shall fall upon them; by the greatness of thine arm they shall be as still as a stone; till thy people pass over." Thus God works through the medium of apprehension, wonder, curiosity; thus God holds the eyes of men that they may not see the reality of the case; and thus God touches the eyes of men that they mistake one man for a thousand. Clouds on the horizon God makes into oceans, the very vastness of which terrifies the observer. God makes noises in the air which men mistake for the sound of battle, as if the war were being led by an infinite host of skilled soldiers. Write the history of fear as known in your own consciousness; put down exactly what fear has done in your case—how it has multiplied difficulties, how it has excited anxieties, how it has made you feel as if the little number you saw only came ahead of an infinite host; and the result will be that you will discover that fear has done more in life than reality has ever done—that imagination has outrun literal realism. We have suffered more from the things we thought were going to happen than we ever suffered from the things which really did occur. The mind of man is in the hand of the Lord; the heart of man is under the guidance of Heaven.
No Christian man can too strongly denounce the spirit and cruelty of war: there are no terms sufficiently expressive and emphatic with which to characterise the horribleness of the military spirit; but there are worse things than war: slavery is worse, oppression is worse, robbery is worse; war may become comparatively righteous and even holy, but slavery can never become so, or oppression, or robbery, or wrong-doing, or corruption. That war will ultimately cease is true; but we cannot "take Jesus by force and make him a King:" he must come in his own time, he must appear in his own way. It would suit our impatience and our often unreasoning and immoral rapidity to crown him now; but he is more careful about his crown than we could ever be. The ages are in Christ's own hand; God knows every tick of time, every pulse of life: all the centuries are upon the divine record and are under the divine administration. We cannot hasten things. To hasten peace is to imperil peace. The Bible is a book of wars; "the Lord is a man of war:" he has arrows that are "drunk with blood," a sword that has devoured flesh; but in the end he will bring in everlasting peace. We cannot have the Christian kingdom in the Pentateuch: Christ is not born in the historical books; the Bible itself is the standard by which all progress is indicated; and not until many a weary chapter has been read, and many a weary period survived do men see a star in the east. We did not make the stars: we cannot make them come and go: they are God's bright lights; and he will indicate the time in his own way. Meanwhile, we can live in a spirit of anticipation, in a spirit of peace; we can hold up the great, broad, solemn sentiment of peace. This we are bound to do; but as to how the great nations of the earth shall be reconciled and held in amity, that is a divine mystery for which we must await a divine explanation.
From Aroer, which is by the brink of the river of Arnon, and from the city that is by the river, even unto Gilead, there was not one city too strong for us: the LORD our God delivered all unto us:"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"There was not one city too strong for us."—Deuteronomy 2:36
This is a human testimony to divine promise.—Every city appeared to be too strong, yet in the strength of the Almighty the most powerful cities were as straw before fire.—What is true of cities is true of temptations.—There need not be one temptation that can distress the tried Christian.—If left to himself every temptation would be too much for him; but he is never left to himself; he is fighting God's battle; he is not at the war at his own charges, but at the cost of God, and under the security of heaven.—When we reach the better land we shall be enabled to repeat this testimony according to the variety of the circumstances through which we have come.—It will apply to difficulties of every kind,—personal, social, spiritual: the testimony will be that throughout the whole scheme of life he that was for us was more than all they that were against us.—My soul, hope thou in God!