The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,The Redemption of the Ass
According to the ritual the ass was reckoned among the unclean animals. On that account, if it was to be continued in service it must be redeemed—that is to say, its uncleanness must be recognised, and recognised through the usual medium, namely, of sacrifice. Israel had no horses. Unless we keep this fact in mind, many a passage in the Old Testament will be wholly unintelligible. Horses were for the rich, the mighty, and the proud; horses were symbols of strength, independence, majesty. Remembering this, we shall see the meaning of a line in the song of triumph: "The horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea." That has but little meaning to us. We are accustomed to the sight of horses, and to the use of them; but Israel had been in long servitude—Israel might use the ass, but in the land from which Israel had come only the proud Egyptian could enjoy the advantage of a horse. "Some trust in horses, some in chariots, but our trust," said they who had no horses, "is in the God of heaven." The ass was hated in many ancient lands. It was given over to contempt. One nation of antiquity hesitated, in organising an instrumental band, whether to allow the admission of the trumpet, because the sound of the trumpet reminded the people of the bray of the hated ass. Without these historical circumstances in remembrance we cannot understand the Scriptures; we shall wonder because of our ignorance, and be surprised at exclusions and inclusions which knowledge would amply and satisfactorily explain.
The subject thus comes near to us with pressing spiritual meaning. God has made provision for the redemption of the vilest, "Rejoice greatly, oh daughter of Zion; shout, oh daughter of Jerusalem: behold thy King cometh unto thee: he is just and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass." The abhorred may be set amongst the beloved; that which is farthest away may be brought nearest to the centre; the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and let no man glory in his strength or in his wisdom: let him that glorieth glory in the Lord. The Lord will classify his creatures; we make some initial distributions, but the classification is a heavenly act, and we shall in the long run, after innumerable experiments, find ourselves shaping things after the pattern which was shown to man in the mount. What becomes of the favourite argument that all things are the good creatures of God in view of the distributions which God himself has made? He has said to man again and again: Thou shalt not eat this animal. Why not? Are not all animals the good gifts of God? By this shallow plea we excuse the indulgence of our passions and seek to sanctify the profanation of our appetite. Who made the living things? They were made by the God who fashioned all life; yet he has surrounded some with sanctitudes that may not be violated. He has given others to be food for the hunger of men. Within the law there is another law, and above it there is a higher law still, and no cheap rendering or shallow interpretation of apparent facts can be admitted for a moment near the altar which sanctifies the universe. It requires a long time to teach some men that the very lowest may be turned into the highest, and the uncleanest may be set amongst those who are clothed in the purity of snow. Said one such man: "God hath showed me"—his eyes were even then glazed with semi-unbelief—"that I should not call any man common or unclean." It takes God to show that revelation to us. It has become a commonplace because all things have become commonplaces, but in its inner meaning it is a revelation charged with the very glory of the Shekinah.
God having thus laid down the method of redemption—the scheme by which inequalities can be levelled up and uses made of things temporarily forbidden—proceeds to show that behind this mercy there burns a law. "And if thou wilt not"—what then? We are not left to mere disobedience. God has not so constituted things that we can obey or disobey, and no consequence will follow. All things beat upon one another in sacred and vital pulsation. It is not given to any of us to obey without recompense, or to disobey without loss. The law is: "If thou wilt not redeem it, then thou shalt break his neck." The unredeemed ass shall not live. Looked at within narrow boundaries, the circumstance seems to be trivial, but to the eye of wisdom—the gaze that has in it the look of other worlds—there is a symbolic interpretation which is verifying itself every day in our experience. God cannot be out-witted. We have gone into his presence with half a gift, saying it was all. We have called the fraction an integer. What has been the consequence?—death. We may be dead whilst we live. We have mistaken the limit of the individual. We have thought that in the body is the death, and because the bones were still in joint and the locomotion was not interrupted we have supposed that we lived. The man within fell down dead when we told the lie—the real man, the Divinely-imaged man, the man meant for immortality in heaven. "Within," said Jesus Christ to some, "ye are rottenness." By skill, by wealth, by study, we have been enabled to clothe ourselves with purple and fine linen; but the purple smells rank; through the fine linen there comes an odour which tells of internal death. So foolish are we and ignorant that we suppose that concealment amounts to a complete reversal of the law inexorable. We cannot defeat God. We are cunning tricksters; we have a wonderful faculty of altering figures and forging names and putting in false returns and schedules and bribing auditors whom we hire out of our own family, and who wish us to be auditors in return, that we may conspire in a common felony. But God cannot be defeated. His word is looking at us all the time and throttling us; that is the literal rendering of the passage. All things are naked and throttled by the word with which we have to do—the eyes burning us, the hands grasping us; and because we have thrown dust into our own vision, and do not see the reality of things, we call the Biblical appeal an ancient cry and the modern preaching an obsolete claim. Oh that men were wise, that they understood these things! We have temporarily deceived God. We have many an ass in our fields that we have not redeemed; we have reserved the price of the lamb; we have kept back and have not restored unto God that which is right, and we say: Behold, he knows it not. We mourn over our losses and difficulties in the house, and in the field, and in the marketplace: we say, "There is an epidemic in the stable, there is a blight in the pasture, there is a cold in the air, before which warm life cannot stand." It is all true—it all comes out of the unredeemed property. Is there not a cause? There is always a moral explanation. They are shallow philanthropists who seek to stop the judgment of God by cheap breakfasts for the poor. God will not have his broken laws tinkered and soldered in that fashion. Judgment must begin at the house of God, and we must deal with the realities of the case. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
What a comprehensive aspect of redemption is presented by this incident! Who can tell where redemption ends? Who dare say that the dogs die and are never heard of or known any more? Who has entitled us to assert that every living thing will not live again, and live for ever? We do not know what life is. We may take it lawfully and consume it, but we have not therefore destroyed it Why did God make all these little winged things that flutter in the sunbeam—all these busy tiny creatures that toil night and day in the fecundant earth? Why did he fill the water with life and the forests with the throb and tread of mighty beasts? It cannot be merely to please himself, as a child might invent new toys to please a momentary fancy. Life is a greater mystery than any explanation has yet wholly covered. The only word that begins to touch it is the word Redemption. We cannot tell how large redemption is, but we may judge somewhat of its amplitude by another word akin to it and preparatory to it, and that is the word Providence. God thus enables us to judge in some degree one thing by another, one scheme by another. Redemption would have overwhelmed us; we should have called it a supernatural word, or a term lying a long way from the common reach of our thinking and experience. So we begin with the word Providence—that under-word, that younger term that does the housework of the universe; busy, kindly, thoughtful, hospitable word, that makes things ready for us, cares for all our life, busies itself about us, and that says to us, "The very hairs of your head are all numbered." A student of Providence cannot, therefore, be so much surprised at the vastness of redemption as he who has not made that study. The providence has been so minute that we cannot wonder the redemption should exceed it in its critical care for the weal of life.
The giving of such a law is specially interesting as suggesting certain inferences as to the Lawgiver. This is an apparently trivial enactment. There is nothing trivial in the dispensations of God. He who makes trifles anywhere will make a trifle of himself, of his business, and of his destiny. Little things are made important in the Scriptures; little things are made important by all wise men in the relations of life. This is also an apparently out-of-the-way incident. Out of the way! What way? Out of our way, possibly; but what is our way?—a little path leading nowhere: a road we have made with which to please ourselves to go up and down upon, and suppose to be the universe. The way! Who knoweth the way of the Lord? His way is in the great waters; he walketh upon the winds, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. Out of the way! Even the universe is too narrow a path for his progress. Even the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain him. There is nothing out of the way to God. Show me some life that God never fashioned, or that never came within his purpose when he started the mystery of the kingdom of life, and that may be out of the way.
Then comes the cumulative argument, which Jesus Christ himself often employed. "If a beast—much more a man." Speaking of the flowers of the field and the fowls of the air, Jesus Christ said, "Are ye not much better than they?" And again he asks, "How much better is a man than a sheep?" He said, "If ye, being evil," give certain good things, "how much more will your heavenly Father," who is perfect, do things gracious and beneficent? May the ass be redeemed, and the unclean beast brought into a right status before God—and has no arrangement been made for the redemption of man?
Under what a system we live! We think the old laws and statutes have been abolished. Not one of them. We suppose the book of Exodus to be full of ancient precepts. If so, I have not found any of the precepts. They must be wise enough to take me into their school who can show me one obsolete line in all the Bible that relates to the education and the discipline, the training and the completion of human life. The words may have been changed, but every statute is still here. We are still in a network, and live in a cage of service. If we have come into a larger liberty, it is only because we have come into a larger cage. Is God less watchful of human life than of the lives of beasts? Even if many of the little narrow laws have been done away, it is only in the sense of their having been displaced by the greater law. The invitation issuing from all these considerations is an invitation of love—"Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." How is the yoke easy? Because the increased strength has been so cultured and enlarged as not to feel the chafing which was once intolerable. How is the burden light? Because the back is stronger to bear it. The burden of law remains eternally the same, but the inspiration of grace, the nutriment and the comfort of internal edification, enables men to carry the burden as if it were a feather, and to run all the days of life with an untiring energy. God shows his grandeur by his love—
All the way along where I have been permitted to accompany him he has never forgotten one thing, even according to the history imperfectly written, because written by human hands. I cannot charge God with one deed of negligence. He would need to be of a dull mind with hardly any vision at all who would shrink from undertaking to prove that all human history, as related in the Scriptures, proves the watchfulness, the tenderness, and the love of our Father in heaven. But he is not to be trifled with. Do not suppose we can come and go as we like; now in a high mood, now in a low one; now obey, now disobey; now be up among the angels, then among the exiles and rebels. God is watchful on every side; he keeps a register. In the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel by Matthew he startled men by saying what he knew about them. God is not unrighteous to forget your work of faith and labour of love. Can any man stand up and say that he redeemed the ass, and yet God broke his neck?—he fulfilled the law, yet God inflicted the penalty?—he was good, and God was unkind? No such man rises to the challenge of the universe.
The law of Moses declared the firstborn, if a boy, to be sacred to God, and required him to be redeemed from the priest The modern Jews maintain, "if the firstborn of an Israelite be a son, the father is bound to redeem him, from the thirtieth day forward. If he redeem him before that time, it is not accounted a redemption. If he omit it after that, he is guilty of neglecting an affirmative precept On the thirty-first day the father sends for a priest and places his little son on a table, saying, 'My wife, who is an Israelites, has brought me a firstborn, but the law assigns him to thee.' The priest asks, 'Dost thou therefore surrender him to me?' The father answers in the affirmative. The priest then inquires which he would rather have, his firstborn, or the five shekels required for his redemption. The father replies, he prefers his son, and charging the priest to accept the money, pronounces a form of benediction. The father then produces the value of five shekels, and the priest asks the mother if she had been delivered of any other child, or miscarried. If she answers no, the priest takes the money, lays it on the head of the child, and says, 'This son being a firstborn, the blessed God hath commanded us to redeem him, as it is said, "And those that are to be redeemed from a month old thou shalt redeem them, according to thine estimation, for the money of five shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, which is twenty gerahs" (Numbers 18:16). Whilst thou wast in thy mother's womb thou wast in the power of thy Father who is in heaven, and in the power of thy parents; but now thou art in my power, for I am a priest But thy father and mother are desirous to redeem thee, for thou art a sanctified firstborn, as it is written, "And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine"' (Exodus 13:2). He then turns to the father, and says, 'I have received these five shekels from thee, for the redemption of this thy son; and, behold, he is therewith redeemed, according to the law of Moses and Israel.'" This ceremony is followed by feasting. When the father dies before the thirty-first day, the mother is not bound to redeem her son, but a piece of parchment or small plate of silver is suspended on the child's neck, with a Hebrew inscription, signifying a firstborn son not redeemed, or a son of a priest.—Biblical Antiquities.
Almighty God, who is sufficient to obey the call which thou hast addressed to the human soul? We wonder at thy patience. When we grow in wisdom we grow in anger, for ignorance then becomes so hateful to us. What must our ignorance be to the all-wisdom of God? Blessed be thy name; it is all-wisdom, and therefore the more patient. It is better to fall into the hands of God than into the hands of men. We have fallen below the miracle; yea, we have said there are no miracles now; and therein we have spoken the lying truth. We look at the letter, but see nothing of its flush and colour of fire; there is no God in it, either of Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, or our own forefathers in the flesh. It is now become a letter amongst many, and might be numbered, and volumed, and forgotten. It is not the bush that burns with fire, that fastens the wondering shepherd to the road, or makes him turn aside, not from duty, but towards worship. We think we have read thy book. We are only content with it as we can move about in it here and there. How canst thou live with fools? How canst thou spare the Church that has no blood-mark upon it—a great hypocrisy? Sometimes thou dost show us thy patience most vividly, and that is when we ourselves see that we are undeserving. Blessed be thy name; thy patience is longer than our obstinacy, and the goodness of the Lord will yet conquer us, and thou shalt, long ages after this, which arithmetic cannot number, have some around thee who can look upon God and not die. Thy way is wonderful; the sea is shallow compared with the depths of thy wisdom, and the firmament a low height which a child can touch, compared with the infinite ascension and majesty of thy thought God be merciful unto us We were born yesterday, and in our pride and folly we think we are living to-day, not knowing that we are only beginning to be. Spare us! Pity us! Take to thyself the greater glory in our preservation, and not the readier glory of our destruction; take thy glory by-and-by in the patience which has ripened into success, and not in the destruction which has burned like an angry judgment against creatures of a day. We bless thee for thy Word—great mighty Word, more terrible than fire, sharper than a sword, softer than dew, more beautiful than all colour, with a whisper in it that never can be imitated; a still small voice: now of reason, now of expostulation, now of encouragement, but hiding in itself all the waves, and thunders, and winds that went before it—the very suppression of almightiness. All things are naked and prostrate to the eyes of that Word with which we have to do. It lays a grip upon us like the grip of a wrestler, and throws us to the ground, and binds us there in servitude that cannot be resisted. Blessed be God for his Word; it is a lamp, a light, a trumpet, a music, a song, a friend; it is everything that can cheer, satisfy, and delight, and content the soul without one touch of satiety; and all this we know in Christ thy Son, Blessed One, Second in the Trinity, yet God over all; Alpha, Omega, shining in the star of morning, gleaming in the star of eventide, burning in the noonday sun, filling all things with the glory of his presence. May he fill our hearts with his Cross, with the spirit of sacrifice, with an agony like his own; without him we could not bear it, but with him we can turn sorrow into joy, and a crown of thorns into a crown of blessedness. Pity us whenever we have to carry great weights with unequal strength. Make our bed for us when we cannot make it for ourselves. Touch the bread when it is coming down to the last cut of the loaf, and behold we shall have more at the end than we had to begin with. As for our enemies, we cannot see them because thou art so near; thou wilt deal with them. Destroy them not, we pray thee, but turn them into friends. The Lord comfort the sick. Speak to hearts that have been impoverished and desolated lately, in which a great grave has been dug, and the lovedest of all lives has been taken. God help us, sustain us. The days are but a handful when they are all reckoned, but they are linked on to God's eternity. Amen.
The Drowning of Pharaoh
"What, still talking about miracles? We thought that faith in miracles had been given up long ago by intelligent men." Some such expression as this would not be unnatural from certain quarters. The answer is that "intelligent men" are just beginning to believe in miracles. They are nearly always the last men to come round to great conceptions and noble spiritual realisations. But even "intelligent men" are stirring themselves with somewhat of reluctance in the direction which we should term spiritual and evangelical. All the greatest books that are being written to-day, upon what would once have been called the hostile side, force upon their readers the consciousness of a hunger which nothing in time or space can satisfy—a voracity of the soul. We may be more or less sated after having read arguments upon which we have been nourished for a lifetime, but we are pinched with gnawing and agonising hunger after perusing the pages which were intended to tell us all that can be told. Did the miracles as here reported actually occur? Why not? You can only be puzzled by a miracle when you are puzzled by a God. If your conception of God were like mine, no miracle that ever was reported could touch the region of impossibility. No wonder men are troubled, even to perplexity and sore distress of heart, by so-called miracles, when they have not acquainted themselves deeply with the power and spirit and purpose of God. The study is begun at the wrong point. To me it is easier to believe that the miracles occurred than that they could not have occurred. The difficulty from my point of view is wholly on the other side. Whether they did historically occur or not is not the immediate question. To me, I repeat, it is easier, with my conception of God, to believe that the miracles could have occurred than that it was impossible for them to occur. Everything turns upon our conception of the Worker of the miracles. We do not begin at the miracle itself. We begin with the Teacher, the Worker, the realised Jehovah, or the incarnate Logos. Having first entered into fellowship, we next pass into faith. Knowing by the penetration and sympathy of love what the spirit of the Worker is, we have no difficulty. We pass with him into all his action, and when the action is mightiest our rest is deepest, because the proportion between the Worker and the work impresses the mind with a sense of infinite harmony. The greater the miracle the easier to believe in it. The greatest miracle must be infinitely less than the Worker who accomplished it. If ever faith falters it must be because the miracle is too small. The great miracle challenges our best self like the trumpet of resurrection; as the miracle increases in volume and grandeur, in pomp and nobleness, something within us hitherto unknown rises and claims kinship with the Worker of that stupendous wonder. This was curiously illustrated in the life of Jesus Christ. When the people fell into unbelief it was because the miracle was of what may be termed a commonplace character,—that is to say, some possible explanation of jugglery might in some degree account for it To open the eyes of the blind might be some trick of magic; but the man himself stood up and said,—"Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind." He seized the true emphasis and meaning of the action. To open the eyes of the blind might be accounted for by some species of cleverness or legerdemain; but, says the man: "I was born blind; I believe this miracle, not because it is little but because it is great." Thus man is made to know subtly and profoundly that he was created in the image and likeness of God, and when God is, so to say, most God, man realises his human grandeur as he can realise it under no other circumstances. To heal the bruised or broken joint might be some successful trick in occult surgery; there might be pretence about it. We allow a miracle of that kind to pass under our review without being deeply moved by it,—it comes not up to the level of our truest grandeur; but when a dead man is raised—one who has been four days in the grave—when he comes forth, a new feeling seizes the mind, and because the miracle enlarges and ennobles itself, we rise with corresponding and harmonious dignity of conception and sympathy. It is only, therefore, where the miracle is supposedly little or imitable, or commonplace, that faith hardly cares to stoop to take up a trifle so insignificant. The soul of man being really roused, and burning through and through with a celestial fire, asks for infinite miracles,—asks for God. Grow in grace, and you will take up all the minor miracles as very little things, and yearn in sweet and ardent prayer for the greatest of all miracles—the conscious presence of the Living God.
But there is another mode of treatment which we have not in these pastoral studies hesitated to adopt, which will enable us to seize the supernatural element with a firmer hand.
Let us in the first instance always inquire into the moral doctrine of these unusual events: asking what is the underlying truth, what the spiritual and moral meaning the narration of the exciting incidents is intended to convey to us. Having discovered the intent of the writer we shall have no difficulty about the romantic or amazing incidents. This is what we do with a parable, and a parable is a miracle in imagination. The great miracle has about it the touch and the mystery of the marvellous. It is not an off-hand thought It is reason at its best; or, to speak figuratively, it is reason on wings,—no longer walking on the narrow earth but flying in the unmeasured heaven. We do not force a parable into literal meanings at every point; we ask, What is its central intent or meaning? and having seized that we treat all the outward and literal as decorative, suggestive, or merely incidentally helpful; but we do not risk the truth because of the peculiarity of the medium of its conveyance.
"And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night:
"He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people" (Exodus 13:21-22).
What is the great doctrine of that expression?
This:—The consciousness of the Divine presence is in proportion to the circumstances in which we are placed. In other words, our circumstances determine our consciousness of the Divine nearness. Sometimes life is all day—almost a summer day with great spans of blue sky overhead, and where the clouds gather they gather in beautiful whiteness, as of purity akin to the holiness of the inner and upper cities of the universe. Then what do we want with fiery displays of God?—they would be out of keeping, out of reason and out of proportion. There are days that are themselves so bright, so hospitable, so long ending, and so poetic in all their breezes, and suggestions, and ministries that we seem not to want any dogmatic teaching about the personality and nearness of God. All beauty represents him. Any more emphatic demonstration would be out of harmony with the splendid serenity of the occasion. Then there are periods in life all night, all darkness, all storm or weariness. We cannot say where the door of liberty is, nor dare we step out lest we fall over a precipice; all is dark, all is trouble; friends are as absent as if they were dead, and all the sanctuaries to which we have hitherto resorted are concealed by the infinite darkness. What do we want then? A bird to sing to us? That would be helpful. A little tiny voice to break the troubled silence? That would not be amiss. But what do we really want? A column of fire, a pillar of glory, an emphatic incarnation and vision of Providence; and the soul gets both these manifestations of God according to the circumstances under which the soul is living. Take it, therefore, simply as an analogy, and then it is a rational analogy; it is true to every man's experience. And if the pillar of cloud and fire should drop off, there will remain the eternal truth, that according to the soul's circumstances is the Divine revelation of itself. Where the visible is enough why add more? A man should not want much theology of a formal sort on a bright summer day. Some little tuft of cloud will represent the Infinite. Some almost invisible wing in the air—more a thought than a thing—hardly to be identified by the bodily eye, will symbolise the all-embracing power and the all-brooding love. Then at night we want what is called dogmatic teaching, broad emphasis, piercing declaration, vividness that cannot be mistaken, God almost within the clasping of the poor arms, God almost in sight of the eyes of the body. Thus God deals with us. This is true to our history. The mere cloud may go, the pillar of fire may be accepted as figurative; but the eternal truth that God comes to us in different ways under different circumstances—now as a cloud, now as a fire, now as a judgment, now as without mercy, now a roaring tempest, now a still small voice,—is a truth that remains whatever havoc may be wrought amid the mere figurativeness by which that truth is symbolised.
Then the cloud went behind the Israelites and separated between the camp of the chosen people and the camp of the Egyptians. That is occurring every day. Our circumstances have different readings from different points of view. It is possible for a life to be so lived that the enemy shall be afraid of it. The enemy shall say, "I do not understand this people; there is a mystery about them, say what you please, criticise them night and day with all possible sharpness and severity; there is a magic ring around them; there are circumstances attendant upon them which are the more perplexing in that they sometimes seem to be disasters: now we say, 'Everything is against them,' and presently the very things we thought to be against them turn out rather to the furtherance of their purposes." This is a mystery; and thus the Divine Providence turns a different view upon the Church and the world, the son and the alien, the family and the rebel-camp. So long, therefore, as these central truths can be attested and positively verified, why should we fritter away a splendid occasion by a petty criticism of mere figure, and robe, and parabolic symbol and representation? Thus, take it from the literal side, take it from the imaginative and parabolical, my faith has no difficulty whatever with the miracles, except when they are small. It rises to their majesty. The greater they arc the more will every Nicodemus be compelled even at night time to steal out and say to the Worker, "Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him." Mark how Nicodemus fixed upon the quality of the miracles—the miracles that separated themselves from the magician's wonders of heathen or cultivated lands.
"And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken, us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness" (Exodus 14:11-12).
That is a miracle in very deed! That is the marvel that astounds the reason, the heart, the imagination, and the conscience. That is the miracle which grieves Heaven. "Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the Lord hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me." That is the upsetting of the law of continuity. That is the violation of things permanent. That is an ugly and wicked twist in the movement of the law which you call "the persistence of force." After all they had seen,—after all the miracles of love, and grace, and deliverance, and comfort,—after all they had known of the government of God,—they turned round with so base a falseness and smote, as with darts seven times whetted, the heart of Moses their leader. That is the impossible miracle. How mean we are and paltry in our judgment and in thinking that the dividing of a sea or the breaking up of a firmament is the impossible thing, when every day we are working in our own degree and region moral miracles that make the breaking up and reconstruction of the universe mere child's fancy and child's play. Why do we not fix our attention upon moral incongruities,—violations of moral law, rebellion against natural instinct? He who smites his father or his mother violates every law of nature with a more forceful and violent hand than the God who interferes or intervenes in his own infinite machine—the universe—to do what pleaseth him for the good of his creatures. We like little intellectual puzzles;—we flee away because "conscience makes cowards of us all," from the violations of moral law of which we are guilty. We love to speak of "continuity,"—it costs us nothing; it does not wring the conscience, it does not set up a bar of judgment in the life; it has a bold resonance which we can utter without moral expense or agony; therefore we play upon it; it delights our intellectual vanity. When we come to ourselves we shall know that we have sinned against Heaven and against ourselves and are no more worthy to be called children. In the sublime agony we shall forget all physical miracles in the stupendous wonder that we have grieved the Father's heart.
"And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters Were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left" (Exodus 14:22).
Did they really do this? Why not? Suppose we set aside the miraculous incident for a moment and ask: What does the writer mean to convey by this high imagining? He means to convey this lesson, namely, that a way was found where a way was supposed to be impossible. Is that his meaning? Yes. If that is so, the doctrine is verifying and illustrating itself every day in the history of every man. This then is the true miracle:—that when our poor life has been driven up to a point from which there seemed to be no escape, God has shown an opening in the rock, or a way through the deep; and we who expected to perish because the way was ended have been enabled to enter upon larger liberties. Who will swear to that? I will. Ten thousand times ten thousand witnesses will avouch it. There will be no halting in that oath; and if you represent to us these deliverances as the breaking up of mountains, the dividing of seas, the cleaving in twain of deep and rapid-flowing rivers, we will say, "Pile up the parables, stir your imagination to some nobler figurativeness, for you can never by symbol, or dream, or romantic art, represent the whole truth which we have realised as to the delivering, protecting, preserving, redeeming providence of God."
Instead, therefore, of joining the unbelievers who waste life in trying to show that Almightiness cannot be Almighty, I prefer to begin the study from the other end and to say,—"Even if this be a figure, it is a happy one, for I have been in circumstances just of this very kind: the enemy behind me, the foe almost with his hand upon my weary back, and no way out of the difficulty has presented itself, and yet suddenly my extremity became God's opportunity, and at a bound I was beyond the reach of the destroyer." We want personal testimony about matters of this kind. We want such incidents proved by modern consciousness and present-day facts. That can be done,—and is being done. When the Church rises as one man and repeats the challenge of the psalmist—"Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul"—the critic will first have to prove us false in our character and in our spirit before he can prove us false in our theology and our worship. Do not find fault with the manner in which the truth itself is presented. To find fault with the mere manner of conveying the truth is foolish, is unjust. We should seek the truth, realise it, own it, and abide by it.
Leaving the merely miraculous line, these incidents show us human life in a state of panic and distress.
"When Pharaoh drew nigh, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians marched after them; and they were sore afraid: and the children of Israel cried out unto the Lord" (Exodus 14:10).
How soon we are driven into a panic! In the very midst of our prayers we are startled into atheism. A sudden fear shoots through the soul, sometimes in the very act of intercession, and petrifies the holy aspiration, so that we rise from the altar worse than when we bended down before its sacred stones. The incidents show us human nature in a spirit of rebellion and ingratitude. "And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness?" How we are like staves that break in the hands of those who use them! There is but a step between the truest friendship and the bitterest enmity. The brother who adores you to-day will hate you tomorrow, if you cross his will or stain his pride. Here is human life in a condition of utter helplessness.
"Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord" (Exodus 14:13).
These are noble times—times when we have to be everything by being nothing; days when our poor arms have to fall down at our sides unable to do the very simplest thing in the way of self-deliverance or self-extrication from difficulty. This threefold condition was the state of the world prior to the birth of Christ. The world was in a state of panic and distress; the spirit of rebellion and ingratitude urged itself against the heavens, it had exhausted every possible means of self-deliverance and self-pro-gress, and could go no further. It had begun a circular movement, and in its helpless rotation was dying of monotony. Suddenly there was a voice heard:—"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men." History took a new turn from that day. Account for it as you please—again resent the miraculous and supernatural element,—there is the fact, that to-day men will do more for Jesus Christ than for any other leader. The men who know him best love him most, and have entered most profoundly into his spirit. Paul was not a weak man,—Paul could take hold of an argument by both hands and weigh it, measure it, test it; Paul was a man who is proved by his mere style of writing and of speech to have been a man of great intellectual capacity as well as of fine moral quality,—a philosopher, a reasoner, a critic,—a man of most penetrating intellect and of ample judgment; and he, having approached this great miracle from the hostile side, left it at last, when he was old, bruised, stripped, almost dead, saying—"I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing." It was a philosopher who said, "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." It was a critic who said, "I am crucified with Christ." It was an aristocrat of the highest Pharisaic blood who gathered together all pedigrees and genealogies and prides of families and said, "I do count them but dung, that I may win Christ." The Man who made such an impression on such a mind was himself a greater miracle than any wonder or sign which he performed before the imagination, the curiosity, or the unbelief of his contemporaries. Now unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, unto him be glory and dominion and all majesty day without end. Amen.
Thou shalt therefore keep this ordinance in his season from year to year."Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"Thou shalt therefore keep this ordinance in his season front year to year"—Exodus 13:10.
Memory needs to be vivified.—We pursue this kind of practice in our own household life.—The recurring birthday is a recurring joy.—Every child in the family has its own method of celebrating its nativity.—Great mercies should create their own anniversaries.—It is well to sanctify our time by religious recollections and consecrations.—There is no need to fall into superstition in this matter.—We may be but sparing ourselves when we relax our religious discipline on the ground that religious observances may become superstitions.—Every act of life is capable of debasement; but it does not therefore follow that life should be without action, and particularity of observance and ceremonial. The Church is a help to remembrance, so is the ordinance of the Lord's Supper.—We ourselves are at liberty to set up milestones by the road, and to set aside special days for the remembrance of particular acts of providential revelation and care.—Every line in the diary should have in it something of God.—There is a deep spiritual sense in which every day is a birthday, and every morning a new year.—They use time well who find in it many new points of newness—that is, chances of being better and opportunities of rendering wider service.—By indicating a special day, God lays down a law rather than fixes a technical statute: the law being that days may be marked according to their position in what may be termed the religious calendar—the diary of the soul.
And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt:"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt: but God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red sea: and the children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt. And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him: for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you."—Exodus 13:17-19.
God's mercy is continued beyond the mere act of deliverance.—God does not sit down outside the gate saying, "You are now free, do all the rest for yourselves."—Little acts follow great deeds in the wondrous economy of the Divine providence.—There is a preventative ministry in the government of life.—Near cuts to the goal are often dangerous cuts; to go across country instead of round by the proper circuit may appear to be very clever and successful, but it is only the cleverness and the success of suicide.—Do not consider that we are out of the road because the road seems to be longer than it might have been.—Often better to be in the wilderness than to be in the battlefield.—God so orders his providence that men have services to render which considerably assist the detection of the path of duty. The services may be of an incidental and indirect kind, and may not always be accredited with their proper bearing and influence in life.—Moses took the bones of Joseph with him.—The carriage of the bones of Joseph had much to do with the progress of Israel in the wilderness.—The solemnity of a vow was upon Israel.—A dying man had given a direct charge to the children of Israel and had received an oath, and that oath was amongst the people as an inspiration, an encouragement and a discipline.—God thus often charges our lives with sacred ministries which have an incidental bearing upon the steadiness of our course. We have made promises, or entered into engagements, or signed covenants, or done something which comes up again and again in the life and says, "You are bound to go forward; you cannot retreat without falsehood and cowardice."
And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him: for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you."Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him: for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you."—Exodus 13:19.
A very simple thing it appears to be to us that Moses took the bones of Joseph with him.—The circumstance is full of poetry and moral significance.—Do not we all carry with us the bones of the past? This is the very pith of history.—If we did not take the past with us the present would be a continual disappointment,—a line coming and going without bringing with it any opportunity of service and enlargement of soul.—Much depends upon our conscious and intelligent relation to the past—We ought to have brought a good deal with us from all the centuries that are gone.—If we have come up out of them empty-handed, we have by so much turned the counsel of God to non-effect—Every wise heart is carrying up with it memories, vows, oaths, traditions, sacred impressions, and is under the responsibility of trusteeship to the future to be faithful to all the highest claims of the past. Poor is he who has no history behind him.—He becomes the victim of every combination of circumstances; the dupe of every tempter that assails his heart with unfamiliar and lying promises.—To carry up the past may steady our whole movement and give it dignity in times of fear and depression.—However little we may be in ourselves, we are charged as messengers of Heaven to carry on certain work and to connect transient periods of time and so assist in the consolidation of human history.—On the other hand we must guard against the worship of ancestry which is founded upon mere superstition.—We do not carry the bones of Joseph, we honour his service and redeem our own pledge.—What bones all Christians have to carry!—Think of all the heroes, witnesses, martyrs, and confessors of the past, and let the humblest Christian pilgrim realise that he has it distinctly in his charge to carry forward such histories and testimonies to the age that is to follow.—Whatever Israel carried through the wilderness derived importance from the fact that it was associated with the bones of Joseph.—Those bones kept Israel from going back to Egypt.—When Israel reeled in its purpose and thought of returning to the land of tyranny the question would arise again and again, What are we to do with the bones which we promised to carry up and to protect by burial in another land?—By many curious lines and ties does God bind us down to the fulfilment of our destiny.—The record is not all written in plain letters; many an invisible line now and then comes into sight to show us that under all the great letters which the naked eye can see there are writings and meanings which are only disclosed to patient waiting and scrutiny.